“Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time….as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again. And is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas”
— James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941.
By Michael Romain
fter the bill that would make possible Martin Luther King Day passed the House of Representatives in 1983 by 53 votes, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms first filibustered the legislation for 16 days, then presented a 400-page brief alleging that King was a communist. Helms, a tried and true racist, understood King’s fury much more intimately than do most of us honoring him today. Which is to say, Helms understood viscerally what King meant, what he stood for, which is why he abhorred him. King wasn’t a communist, but it was just the same for someone like Helms, whose free market conservatism complemented a cultural and social conservatism that utilized racism as a tool for undermining the labor movement.
If you were like Helms and believed that poor workers are individually responsible for their fates, but shouldn’t take pains to change the system that routinely exploits them; that blacks should just be grateful that they had the fortune to be shipped to America and let sleeping dogs lie; and that egregious economic inequality is necessary for the capitalist system to thrive, then King’s message that racial equality should be coterminous with economic equality was dangerous indeed.
And if you’re someone like Paul Ryan, who believes that ending unions and cutting food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Social Security will somehow help poor people in this country; or Mitt Romney, who believes that, even with the majority of wealth hoarded by the top one percent of the population, almost half of the country is comprised of freeloaders; or even a black prosperity preacher who holds his extravagance up as an object lesson to his congregation of aspiring consumers that ‘you too can have what I have if only you believe’–then Dr. King’s message is still dangerous.
But as James Agee so brilliantly noted, when we turn prophets and rebels who were threats to the established order in their heydays into saints and figureheads–we only aid the enemies of humanity who wish to purge the world of its prophetic and rebellious elements. We deal a great collective blow to King’s legacy every time we honor him as the man who gave the famous speech about his dream of a Utopia where whites, blacks, Jews and Gentiles shop together in harmony and live in colorblind suburban subdivisions and socialize in colorblind internet chat rooms and on colorblind dating sites and where every citizen, no matter his or her race, has the right to be equally overworked, underpaid, chronically sick, indebted and bored.
At the time of his assassination, King’s vision was comprised less of a post-racial Utopian dreamscape than a resounding prophetic indictment of a postwar economy built less on the most important needs of the majority of its citizens than on a morally empty ethic of consumption; a class-oriented society that utilized racism as a wedge to drive workers apart and prevent them from organizing in their best interests; and the often reckless, evil nature of America’s Cold War-style imperialism, most elaborately illustrated in the case of Vietnam. If you condensed the whole of King’s mature prophetic thought into a word or two and gave it a name, you wouldn’t do much better than to call it socialism.
Toward the end of his life, King’s allegiance to this radical social vision had taken its toll. As Michael Eric Dyson writes in his luminous ‘biocriticism’ of King, I May Not Get There With You:
“King paid dearly for his inevitable betrayal of Southern white interests, capitalist ideology, and black bourgeois beliefs. Financial support for his civil rights organization dwindled. Moral support for his war on economic inequality waned. And his antiwar protests caused him to be denounced by other black leaders. In 1967, for the first time in a decade, King’s name was left off the Gallup Poll list of the ten most admired Americans.”
In August 1965, at the Voting Rights Act signing ceremony held at the White House, President Johnson was “noticeably frosty” to King, notes Dyson. That’s because King had by then become a rather vocal opponent of Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War. Many black civil rights leaders thought King was wading into territory on which he was unfit and unqualified to comment.
President Johnson’s close friend, Thomas Dodd (father of longtime Democratic U.S. Senator and current lobbyist Chris Dodd), undressed King as “having ‘absolutely no competence’ in foreign policy and charged King with violating the Logan act prohibiting private negotiations with foreign powers.”
The President himself was a lot less formal, referring to King as “that goddamned nigger preacher.”Johnson felt King’s fury and told him so during what would become one of their last conversations. Johnson confessed that the reverend’s criticism of the Vietnam War “had the same effect on Johnson as if he had discovered that King had raped his daughter.”
King’s 1966 Chicago Campaign was met with similar criticism not only from the city’s white establishment, but also from many black preachers, who considered King’s presence too threatening for comfort. In 1965, after Rev. Clay Evans, pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on the South Side, opened his pulpit to Dr. King (one of the few black preachers courageous enough to do so), the bank loaning his church money to construct a new sanctuary withdrew the loan because the bank’s executive, a white man, considered King a troublemaker.
President Kennedy was so leery of King’s alleged communist associations–back then, prominent black leaders didn’t have to do much to attract the suspicion of being communist–that on May 20, 1963, during a White House meeting on civil rights, the President said, “King is so hot that it’s like Marx coming to the White House.” A month later, still nursing suspicions (which were not without substance) that two of King’s advisers–Jack O’Dell and Stanley Levison–were members of the Communist Party, President Kennedy and his brother Bobby urged the popular minister to get rid of the associates. King refused, prompting Attorney General Robert Kennedy to authorize the infamous wiretapping.
King’s stubborn resolve, despite the consequences, to his idea of democratic, or Christian, socialism had developed since childhood. Thomas F. Jackson, in From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Economic Justice, documents King Sr.’s “disdain for ‘slick businessmen’ who profited from housing segregation and the low wages they paid black workers. ‘The poor, black and white, were taught to hate each other,’ King Sr. recalled. ‘Businessmen made money from both.'”
In a sermon in 1940 to a Baptist association, King, Sr. quoted a scripture that’s perhaps central to the Social Gospel philosophy. King quoted “Jesus as he had quoted the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4:18: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.'” Daddy King’s son would carry this social Gospel with him throughout his intellectual development, adopting it to varying contexts and circumstances. And as King’s thinking matured, so would his conception of the prophet Isaiah’s directive.
When he got to Morehouse, King became somewhat infatuated by its president, Benjamin Mays, who wrote in 1940 that “a religion which ignores social problems will in time be doomed.’ King likely encountered the “dean of Negro leaders,” A. Phillip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, vicariously through Randolph’s “Popular Front call to arms against global and American capitalism, fascism, and racism,” which the legendary labor leader issued at Morehouse while King was on campus.
According to Randolph, “Capitalism was turning into fascism to survive because ‘white and black, brown and yellow peoples’ were revolting globally against ‘property relations’ based on empire and coercion. ‘World financial materialism’ generated rampant militarism to protect the ‘economic spheres of influence, trade routes, and political suzerainty’ of imperial capitalist nations. The only alternative was socialism….”
Between 1948 and 1951, while attending Crozer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, King’s social Gospel was influenced by his reading the work of Karl Marx over the 1949 Christmas break. According to Jackson, “J. Pious Barbour, a Baptist preacher, socialist, and family friend who welcomed King into his home for many conversations, recalled King’s growing conviction that ‘the capitalistic system was predicated on exploitation prejudice, [and] poverty.’ Marx got the economics of capitalism right and it was time for ‘a new social order,’ King told Barbour. ‘Capitalism carried the seeds of its own destruction,’ King wrote in his notes in the spring of 1951.”
King also read the works of Walter Rauschenbusch, particularly the 1907 book Christianity and the Social Crises. The great preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick’s paraphrasing of Rauschenbusch’s philosophy was “good enough for King to use in later writings and sermons: ‘Any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion.'”
King’s discovery of what would become his favorite book on Ghandi, That Strange Little Brown Man Gandhi, written by British cleric Frederick Fisher, opened him up to the inextricable linkage between imperialism and exploitative capitalism. Jackson quotes Fisher in describing that linkage, writing that Gandhi discerned “in ‘the system of war the seeds of its own destruction'” and perceived “‘in the private capital the destruction and subversion of spiritual values.'”
King’s penchant for putting on what were literally acts of nonviolent social theater or high moral drama for the world to see was honed by reading about Gandhi’s examples. And there are many. Jackson writes, “King would have learned from Fisher that Gandhi made his vow of poverty while aiding striking Indian miners in South Africa…[Gandhi] was a ‘master dramatist’ on the world media stage, Fisher argues, describing the highly publicized Salt March of 1930 in defiance of Britain’s monopoly on salt production. King found the Salt March especially compelling.”
Although King would often mold his social Gospel to accommodate pragmatic concerns, his allegiance to what he would later himself term his ‘democratic socialism’ only strengthened as he aged. For instance, at times King could be mistaken for a Cold War liberal in his hope that “U.S. competition with the Soviets and Chinese Communists for the loyalties of the world’s ‘uncommitted peoples’ would compel the United States to end homegrown apartheid” and in his vocal denouncements of communism as a form of politics wherein the people are subordinated to an often oppressive state. King was a socialist, but he was no communist. Moreover, Michael Eric Dyson notes that King “never publicly admitted his democratic socialism for fear that it would alienate allies and give his enemies more ammunition to attack him.”
King’s socialist politics were perhaps most radicalized when he began to seriously confront the poverty of the Northern ghettos beginning in 1965. He couldn’t accept how a nation so wealthy and productive could tolerate such squalor and poverty. King’s philosophic answer to this paradox was rooted in democratic socialism. He demanded for a ‘revolution of values’ and a comprehensive restructuring of the economy–from one based on exploitative capitalism, egotistic individualism and the amoral profit motive to one based on broadly shared wealth, common values and justice for all (not just the few).
The King that died in Memphis on April 4, 1968, would have had much in common with the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Islamic protesters in Tahrir Square, the striking Walmart and McDonald’s workers and millions of others–angry and dispossessed. King’s message does not support castrated conceptions of colorblindness or the pure image of a moderate black preacher meek and mild. King’s democratic socialism was rooted in the fundamental protest against the notion that people can be free if you simply grant them civil rights on paper.
King’s conceptions of freedom and democracy weren’t all that ambiguous. We don’t get to superimpose our own meanings of the terms while interpreting “What King Meant.” There’s a right and a wrong way to do it. For guidance, we can start by taking King at his word:
“If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you’re commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.” VFP