Martin Luther King, Jr. first emerged as a leader of class struggle for racial justice in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts at 26 years old. He refused to acclimate to the segregationist political norms of his era, which in the course of struggle against the racist status quo led him to embrace ever more radical conclusions. By the end of his life, he was actively supporting strikes and calling for an end to the burgeoning Vietnam War.
During his life, King was an outspoken dissident against the status quo, and a thorn in the side of the US government and ruling class. This was especially true in his later years when he began to say that “something is wrong with capitalism,” and that “there must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
Yet today, much of King’s political legacy has been corporatized and co-opted by the ruling elite. His name is used to sell everything from washing machines to pickup trucks. His message about peaceful protest has been distorted to wrongly suggest that King would be opposed to militant activism. The ruling class finds ways around King’s criticisms of systemic capitalist rot, instead choosing to acknowledge his memory with token gestures. Even far-right politicians invoke King’s message in an absurd attempt to promote racist policies and ideas.
That’s why it’s important to revisit the real legacy of Martin Luther King, one rooted in class unity and militant action.
King’s Class Politics
King did not limit racism to a question of identity or skin color. He made the fight for civil rights a class issue, explaining the role of the capitalist system in perpetuating the evils of economic injustice.
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” King said in a 1967 speech at Stanford. “The giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Importantly, King backed up his words with action. He led marches in support of striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis. He launched the Poor People’s Campaign, which was designed to create a multi-ethnic coalition of workers – Blacks, whites, Latinos, indigenous people, and more – in a fight for economic freedom.
In contrast to NAACP organizers at that time who looked to resolve the Montgomery Bus Boycotts through the courts, King took to the streets, inspiring organizers to extend the boycott until their full demands were met and pushing the movement to take up more radical demands, including the complete desegregation of the bus system.
MLK Was Internationalist
King’s vision did not stop at America’s borders. Through his international travels, he developed perspectives that connected fights against oppression abroad to the civil rights movement at home.
King opposed the Vietnam War and rampant militarism, speaking out against the death of millions of Vietnamese as well as Black American soldiers sent to die for a country that did not support their freedom. He saw this as so important that he refused to support then-President Lyndon B. Johnson for a second term in 1968, even though Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because of Johnson’s rampant escalation of the Vietnam War.
He drew a direct connection between South African apartheid, which he called “the world’s worst racism,” to the white supremacy that was rampant in the US government. Once again, he made this a class issue, noting that the legalized segregation of apartheid had the goal of “economic exploitation,” and called for an international stand against the South African government.
MLK’s Radical Approach Pointed The Way Forward
King faced many direct attacks in his life, including constant state intimidation, imprisonment, and several assassination attempts before the Memphis shooting that ultimately claimed his life. Though the ruling class may opportunistically celebrate his message today, his radical views made him an unpopular figure to most Americans when he was alive.
Still, King never surrendered hope. Part of what made him such an effective leader at the time was that he put forward a message of unity that crossed racial boundaries and pointed clearly toward the steps society needed for a better future. In particular, he identified the youth as the driving force of change: not yet chained by an established ideology, “they are a new seed of radicalism,” King said, lacking only a “clear idea of what the new society should be.” Through his words and actions, King helped to articulate the barrier represented by capitalism’s exploitation and divide-and-rule, and put forward a powerful vision of what that society could look like.