In the great tradition of political heroes, Martin Luther King's legacy has been sanitized and purged of its most radical and urgent notions, watered down to a kind of meek pacifism that omits his beliefs in radical political change as a necessary condition of attaining real justice.
King's 1952 letter to Coretta Scott lays out his political views:
I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human system it fail victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.
This point of view was no secret — it was hotly tracked by the US government and America's ruling classes. JFK compared him to Karl Marx and authorized Bobby Kennedy to wiretap him. King linked American military adventurism in Vietnam to the civil rights struggle, characterizing them as part of the same system. He called for "a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God's children."
This was a hugely controversial view at the time, and it alienated him from the US establishment. President Lyndon Johnson cut off all contact after this, private remarking, "What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me? We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the War on Poverty. What more does he want?"
It wasn't just war than King linked to the civil rights struggle. He was a union supporter who campaigned against "right to work" legislation and called for a "grand alliance" between black people and poor white people.
If all this sounds familiar, it may be because it's effectively Bernie Sanders's position.
With the Poor People's Campaign, launched in 1968, King escalated this campaign, aimed at providing good jobs, housing, and a decent standard of living to all Americans. Decades before American protesters took to the streets of New York City and other locales to "occupy" space to protest inequality, King proposed a massive tent encampment in Washington, D.C. to demand action on poverty…
He never saw it come to fruition. He was assassinated that year while organizing striking Memphis sanitation workers.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference president Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King followed through with the plan, setting up tens and shacks on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Deemed "Resurrection City," this encampment lasted a month before the Department of Interior forced it to close down.
Martin Luther King Jr. Celebrations Overlook His Critiques of Capitalism and Militarism [Zaid Jilani/The Intercept]
(Image: Martin Luther King, Jr. Montgomery arrest 1958 [Charles Moore/public domain]