Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice
by Thomas F. Jackson
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006
459 pp $39.95
IN EARLY SUMMER 1960, socialist activist Michael Harrington was asked by his friend and comrade Bayard Rustin to help civil rights groups in Los Angeles plan and organize a march to the site of the Democratic National Convention when it opened deliberations in that city in July. Under the official leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the Los Angeles “March on the Convention” sought to pressure the Democratic Party to adopt a strong civil rights plank as part of its 1960 presidential campaign platform.
Harrington did his work well, and the march attracted five to six thousand supporters, many more than organizers had anticipated. The day before it stepped off, Harrington picked up King on his arrival at Los Angeles airport. Over the next few days he shepherded King around Los Angeles, to the march itself, and to a meeting with the convention’s platform committee. Harrington and King also found time for private discussions about political strategy and philosophy. In Fragments of the Century, his 1973 memoir, Harrington reported how he was heartened to learn from their time together that King had “in the course of a much more profound political and intellectual journey than mine, come to a view of America and the world that I largely shared.” King, he believed, was a democratic socialist in all but name.
Or maybe not. These days, it seems, everyone wants a piece of King—even those whose political predecessors in the 1950s and 1960s denounced him as a troublemaker or worse. In last year’s congressional races the National Black Republican Association targeted black communities with radio spots proclaiming, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Republican.” The Black Republican Web site currently features a brief essay with the same title, characterizing the Democrats with partisan succinctness as the “party of the four S’s: Slavery, Secession, Segregation and now Socialism”—four political categories that, it implies, King would have found equally repugnant. And for just $14.95 plus shipping, you can order your own “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican” T-shirt from the same Web site.
Before you rush out to buy the shirt (or its premise), you might want to read Thomas F. Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Jackson, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, suggests that it was Harrington, not King’s would-be expropriators on the right, who displays the better grasp of the civil rights leader’s true political allegiances and values. As he notes in his introduction.
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