Martin Luther King Jr. on Democratic Socialism

By Osagyefo Ulur Sekou

Original article can be read here

King’s anti-capitalist feelings began when, as a child, he saw the bread lines during the Great Depression and asked his parents about the poor and hungry. “I can see the effects of this early childhood experience on my present anti-capitalistic feelings,” he recalled in paper during his divinity-student days in 1950. According to Coretta Scott King, the man she would go on to marry was the first Negro she had met who said he was a democratic socialist. In a July 1952 love letter, the smitten King lay bare his socialist heart. Of capitalism, he said that he “failed to see its relative merits” and believed that it had “outlived its usefulness.” He made a striking confession: “I am more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” For King, capitalism was “a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” Though he noted that was bitterly “opposed to the metaphysical structure of communism as well as Marxism,” he learned from reading Karl Marx “that religion can so easily become a tool of the middle class to keep the proletariat oppressed. Too often the church talked about a future good ‘over yonder’ totally forgetting the present evil over here.” In his love letter, King said he would “welcome the day” there would be “the nationalization of industry” — a socialist measure. As his profile rose, King was not as forthcoming in his socialist leanings in many of his public lectures.


Having attended the 1960 inauguration of socialist President Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, King continued to be a keen observer of revolutionary movements around the globe. Noted anti-imperialist Marxist C.L.R. James recalled that King made it clear during their 1964 meeting in London that he agreed with James’ Marxist analysis. King, according to James, accepted Marx’s critique of capitalism but would not state this publicly because of the anti-communist hysteria in the United States. Michael Harrington, author of the agenda of the Poor People’s Campaign — the 1968 effort by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to demonstrate for economic justice — and eventual founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, believed that King was careful in his public pronouncements on socialism because it could alienate liberals and perhaps confuse his followers.

Nevertheless, in a 1966 planning meeting he understood that the Poor People’s Campaign took on a more radical critique of capitalism and reaffirmed his commitment to democratic socialist eschatology: “Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying something is wrong … with capitalism … There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” Publicly, King couched his democratic socialism in the language of economic equality and his association with the left wing of the Untied States labor movement.

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This key feature of the gospel is evidenced in King relationship with the labor movement. King continuously connects his calling as a minister and the gospel of economic justice. King spent time on picket lines, and his speeches to unions proved a fertile ground for leftist theology. In “All Labor Has Dignity,” Michael K. Honey points out, “King’s leftist union associations had helped him to develop an experiment in labor-civil-rights solidarity that lasted until his death.” King’s lectures in union halls were filled with references to economic justice. In fact, he considered himself a part of the local 1199 union in New York City. Upon his return from accepting the Noble Peace Prize in 1964, King joined striking black women at the Scripto pen factory and helped negotiate a settlement. He consistently worked with unions to ensure economic rights.

King was attempting to use unions “to redeem the soul of a nation.” A step on the path to redemption was the institution of a guaranteed income — a staple proposal in the socialist agenda. In his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” King stated, “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” By providing individuals with permanent economic resources, the United States could be a more just nation based on King’s critical reading of Scripture and society.

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A decade later, King returned to the question of communism. In his Sept. 30, 1962, sermon “Can a Christian Be a Communist?” at Ebenezer Baptist Church, he makes clear that Christianity cannot be reconciled with communism but at the same time welcomes Marx’s critique of profit motives. Communism offers “a necessary corrective for a Christianity that has been all too passive and a democracy that has been all too inert,” King suggests. He went on to raise the issue of wealth inequality — “One-tenth of 1 percent of the population of this nation controls almost 50 percent of the wealth, and I don’t mind saying that there’s something wrong with that.” In this sermon, as with his letter to his beloved, King draws a clear distinction between being a communist and a Christian while upholding a sustained Marxist critique of capitalism, which had a long history in Christian socialism.

In his final speech on April 3, 1968, King offered an interesting exegesis related to economic justice. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union was locked in an intense battle with the Memphis, Tenn., government on the behalf of sanitation workers whose subhuman work conditions had led to two deaths. King used the biblical tale of the Good Samaritan — reading the black sanitation workers as the wounded traveler saved by the title hero of the story. He called on the audience to risk their livelihoods and stand with the sanitation workers through participating in an economic boycott. Exhorting the congregation to go to the “massive industries” and tell them, “God sent us by here to say to you that you’re not treating his children right.” In King’s gospel, the abused sanitation workers and black poor who experience social discrimination and economic deprivation are central to God’s vision for redeeming the world.

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