Martin Luther King Jr. is one of my very favorite figures in the history of American politics and social thought. I have always had a special respect for the civil rights movement, even during my days as a conservative. But King himself holds a special place in my thinking today. I think this is largely because King represented a form of left- leaning liberalism that died in American politics when he died in Memphis.
Some of his greatest moments are the moments which made him a controversial figure during his day. In many ways, our image of King as a non-controversial figure misses out of some of the things which make him great.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he rejects calls to wait rather than act. In that letter we see the most eloquent and passionate rejection of Burkean gradualism since Thomas Paine. In American thought, King is very much a mixture of Paine and Thoreau: a advocate of a rights revolution of non-violence. I am not sure if you can beat that. But he goes beyond it as well.
His “Beyond Vietnam” speech stands as one of the most articulate moral arguments against that war. While we are well aware of the eventual widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, King’s 1967 speech was before the public turned against it. He took a stand against the war before most public officials would do so publicly (almost a year before Walter Conkite’s famed turn against the prudence of the war). The part of the speech which stands out most to me is his assertion that the Vietnamese were people, too. This is a truth that was lost on our war policy of that time, and ours.
When I lived in Idaho, it is not unusual to see a letter to the editor which complained about Martin Luther King Day because King was a communist. The best part of the communist charge is that it is false and a relic of a time when unpopular figure of the left was a communist. He was an egalitarian and a radical one at that. He was a critic of American capitalism. This might make him some form of social democrat or socialist (I proudly claim to be both) but he was anything but a Soviet Marxist. He was a Hugh Nibley with social organization skills.
Of course, you have to keep in mind that these myths are usually spread by John Birch Society-types who consider William F. Buckley and George Will to be communists. Within Mormon culture, this perspective of King and the Civil Rights movement was advocated by Ezra Taft Benson. Mainstream conservativism and the GOP long ago distanced itself from this lunacy. My culture is still stuck with it and it has snuck back into the GOP over the last decade.
I relate strongly to the world-view when he stated in his “Where Do We Go From Here” in 1967:
What I’m saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.
Was Martin Luther King a communist or a capitalist? Neither. He was a socialist. Get it right.
In many ways, the radical Christian egalitarianism which King represented and advocated is a prime example of non-Marxist socialism. I may be projecting here since I view myself as a non-Marxist socialist. Most of the Analytical Marxist school of the late 20th century has moved away from Marx (I specifically have John Roemer in mind here), but remain socialists. George Bernard Shaw, as a late 19th century socialist, had an antagonist relationship with Marxist socialists and other revolutionary socialists.
I say all of this not to defend King against being labelled as a communist in some attempt to defend his image. Instead, I am saying this because it is incorrect to do so. He was part of a socialist tradition that was neither communist or Marxist. It is a great and long tradition.
I love King for his willingness to go beyond basic civil and voting rights and to call for a more equal America. It is also why his vision is still a vision for our day, though a very distant vision. We have spent the last 40 years moving away from King’s vision of a more egalitarian society. In many ways, King’s death marked not only the end the movement he directly led, but 1968 symbolically also marked the end of Johnson’s Great Society. The left is still trying to recover.
Am I hopeful that his dream will ever be realized? I am not sure anymore. If anything I am more pessimistic than ever about the prospect of a just America.
Do I believe in the dream? Absolutely. The whole dream.