On Sunday morning I found myself watching Glenn Beck lay claim to Martin Luther King Jr. Interviewing King?s niece Alveda King, he told us civil disobedience was needed to save America from today?s equivalent of segregation–?European-style social democracy.? Framed by photographs of King (and Gandhi), Beck even let us know that he and his wife had held late-night discussions about whether things were now so bad they would have to follow Dr. King?s example and go to jail to defend liberty and oppose tyranny.
Well, there has been nothing as preposterous since Reagan made claim to “that young man” Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s. Look, King was a European-style social democrat! And a pretty radical one at that.
Writing at Against the Currents, Paul Le Blanc has traced King?s journey to social democratic radicalism. It began early:
His widow Coretta Scott King noted that “within the first month or so of our meeting,” in 1952, King “talked about working within the framework of democracy to move us toward a kind of socialism,” arguing that “a kind of socialism has to be adopted by our system because the way it is, it’s simply unjust.”
She commented that “Democracy means equal justice, equity in every aspect of our society,” and that King “knew that the basic problem in our society had to do with economic justice, or…the contrast of wealth between the haves and the have-nots. Believe it or not, he spoke these words to me when I first met him. It wasn’t something that he learned later and developed.”
It was an expression of his bone-deep commitment to the social gospel:
He also immersed himself in the works of left-wing Protestant theologians, of whom, King noted more than once, Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr were the most important to him. Rauschenbusch, whose 1907 Christianity and the Social Crisis reveals a powerful Marxist influence, proclaimed that “the working class is now engaged in a great historic class struggle which is becoming ever more conscious and bitter,” and that “Socialism is the ultimate and logical outcome of the labor movement.” Rauschenbusch argued that “the new Christian principle of brotherly association must ally itself with the working class if both are to conquer,” since “the force of religious spirit should be bent toward asserting the supremacy of life over property.”
King was basically a Christian socialist:
We have the power to change America and give a kind of new vitality to the religion of Jesus Christ…He initiated the first sit-in movement. The greatest revolutionary that history has ever known…You don’t have to go to Karl Marx to learn how to be a revolutionary. I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx; I got it from a man named Jesus, a Galilean saint who said he was anointed to heal the broken-hearted. He was anointed to deal with the problems of the poor. And that is where we get our inspiration. And we go out in a day when we have a message for the world, and we can change this world and we can change this nation.
Later, King developed a strategic vision for the advancement of social democracy in America working with social democrats like Bayard Rustin.
And at a certain point, King and his co-thinkers believed, simply in order to push back the effects of racism on African Americans, it would become necessary to challenge the de facto form of institutionalized racism prevalent in the North. This could only be done effectively by attacking its underlying economic roots, which in turn could only be done effectively by developing a broader program for economic justice.
While such a program would be initiated by Blacks, it would be powerfully relevant to a majority of whites. The resulting interracial coalition for economic justice would have the dual function of eliminating the roots of institutional racism and creating an atmosphere of idealism and common struggle that would help to further push back various forms of individual (conscious and unconscious) racism.
Beck may attack Obama?s stimulus plan as “radical” and tyrannical while draping himself in King?s mantle, but King actually supported a radical redistributionist stimulus plan–a Marshall Plan for the disadvantaged–back in 1966:
In 1966 A. Philip Randolph issued a “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, endorsed by over 200 prominent civil rights, labor, social activist and academic figures. He described the Freedom Budget as being dedicated “to the full goals of the 1963 March.” One of its strongest supporters was Martin Luther King, Jr., who insisted that “the ultimate answer to the Negroes’ economic dilemma will be found in a massive federal program for all the poor along the lines of A. Philip Randolph’s Freedom Budget, a kind of Marshall Plan for the disadvantaged.”
Randolph himself elaborated on the Freedom Budget’s specifics (involving a ten-year federal expenditure of $180 billion) and its meaning:
The “Freedom Budget” spells out a specific and factual course of action, step by step, to start in early 1967 toward the practical liquidation of poverty in the United States by 1975. The programs urged in the “Freedom Budget” attack all of the major causes of poverty?unemployment and underemployment; substandard pay, inadequate social insurance and welfare payments to those who cannot or should not be employed; bad housing; deficiencies in health services, education, and training; and fiscal and monetary policies which tend to redistribute income regressively rather than progressively. The “Freedom Budget” leaves no room for discrimination in any form, because its programs are addressed to all who need more opportunity and improved incomes and living standards?not just to some of them.
Randoph explained that such programs “are essential to the Negro and other minority groups striving for dignity and economic security in our society,” but that “the abolition of poverty (almost three-quarters of whose victims are white) can be accomplished only through action which embraces the totality of the victims of poverty, neglect, and injustice.”
I (not Le Blanc) would add: an intellectual author of the Freedom Budget–and the strategic vision for left advance of which it was part–was the democratic socialist Max Shachtman. Max?s biographer Peter Drucker called the Freedom Budget “the most detailed program for domestic social change worked out from Shachtman?s final social democratic perspective.”
And by the end of his life, King was about as far from Glenn Beck as it is possible to be, appealing for “the dispossessed of this country” to “organize a revolution” that would eliminate poverty. King said:
I can’t see the answer in riots. On the other hand, I can’t see the answer in tender supplications for justice. I see the answer in an alternative to both of these, and that is militant non-violence that is massive enough, that is attention-getting enough to dramatize the problems, that will be as attention-getting as a riot, that will not destroy life or property in the process. And this is what we hope to do in Washington through our movement.
We feel that there must be some structural changes now, there must be a radical reordering of priorities, there must be a de-escalation and a final stopping of the war in Vietnam and an escalation of the war against poverty and racism here at home. And I feel that this is only going to be done when enough people get together and express their determination through that togetherness and make it clear that we are not going to allow any military-industrial complex to control this country.
One of the great tragedies of the war in Vietnam is that it has strengthened the military-industrial complex, and it must be made clear now that there are some programs that we can cut back on?the space program and certainly the war in Vietnam?and get on with this program of a war on poverty. Right now we don’t even have a skirmish against poverty, and we really need an all out, mobilized war that will make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.
A better guide to Martin Luther King?s socialism is available from Dissent editorial board member Cornel West.