Though Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is arguably the most well-known figure in African- American history, some are unfamiliar with his positions on the big issues of his day beyond a general understanding that he advocated non-violent protest.
Fewer still realize how the public’s response to King while he was alive was vastly different than it is today. Remarkably, some of those positions speak loudly to pressing issues in 2017.
“King was a social democrat, a critic of capitalism,” said Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of history at the University of Houston. “He saw racism, militarism and economic inequality as functions of capitalism.”
Horne contends that King’s critique of capitalism, though central to everything King taught, is a King stance that goes unrecognized by most today. Horne stated that a major turning point for King toward this position occurred when he denounced the Vietnam War.
“Though voiced opposition to the war hurt King’s relationship with President [Lyndon] Johnson, King felt he couldn’t be a consistent apostle of nonviolence unless he spoke out.”
Horne believes King’s last act revealed even clearer his stance against capitalism, a position advocated loudly by a sizeable number of Black millennials today.
“King linked all three – racism, militarism and economic inequality – during his last campaign in Memphis, showing support for striking sanitation workers,” Horne said.
King made this connection, according to Horne, while organizing for the Poor People’s March on Washington, which carried on after King’s assassination in 1968.
King’s own economic solution, as outlined in his book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” was even less popular with U.S. power brokers than his stance against the Vietnam War.
“I’m now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income,” King wrote.
King’s critics labeled him a Communist for seeking a “radical redistribution of economic power” and challenging a profit motive lacking empathy for working people.
“King believed that unless the American form of capitalism changed, Blacks would continue to suffer in abject poverty in inadequate inner cities throughout the country,” said Prairie View A&M University history professor Dr. Ronald Goodwin.
“This should not be seen as an endorsement of Communism, but rather a rejection of the capitalistic system that profited for centuries from slave labor and the economic and political disenfranchisement of Blacks,” Goodwin said.
This ongoing disenfranchisement, even after years of fighting for inclusion into the larger society, led many Blacks to shift focus to efforts of self-determination and a call of Black Power.
“King understood why some called for Black Power, yet he argued it didn’t undercut moral and ethical damage,” said Dr. Anthony Pinn, founding director of Rice University’s Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning.
“Instead, he believed the call for Black Power simply replaced one mode of dominance with another. He also believed any strategy that included violence was doomed to fail,” Pinn said.
In correspondence dated Oct. 1, 1966, King wrote that Black Power meant different things to different people, with some approving the use of violence for social change, while others used the slogan as a call to access political power and endorsed violence only as a means of self-defense.
Still, King did not condemn Black Power, saying the mood that gave birth to it arose from “real, not imaginary causes.”
“Millions of Negroes are frustrated and angered because extravagant promises made less than a year ago are a shattered mockery today…Many Negroes have given up faith in the white majority because ‘white power’ with total control has left them empty handed,” King said.
Regarding self-defense and Second Amendment rights, Pinn said that King considered purchasing a gun to protect his family, but decided against it.
“King recognized the legal right to possess a gun, but he argued those committed to the non-violent direct action approach to social change needed to avoid gun ownership,” Pinn said.
Pinn added that regarding another big issue, King did not adequately address gender inequalities, and “failed to recognize the triple threat faced by Black women – race, gender, class.”
PVAMU history Professor Dr. Marco Robinson, however, said, “King is on record making several statements supporting a woman’s right to choose (pro-choice).”
Obviously, King supported social protest as a tool for inspiring pro-equality legislation, leading scholars to suggest King would have been strongly supportive of current activists such Black Lives Matter participants and Dakota Pipeline protesters.
Unknown to many, King also supported “Buy Black” efforts, stating “We’ve got to strengthen Black institutions” while calling for a Black “Bank-in” during his final speech the night before his assassination.
Though universally celebrated today, King was highly criticized while living.
“Part of King’s greatness was his wide support abroad,” Horne said. “The 1963 March on Washington was duplicated all over the world, from the Congo to Paris.
“Still, he was criticized strongly at home, including by certain leaders of the NAACP who felt he was veering outside the lane of Black leadership and jeopardizing his relationship with LBJ,” Horne said.
Goodwin concurred. “White society trots out King every February as a “safe” alternative to the Black Nationalism advocated by Malcolm X,” he said. “However, history minimizes King’s confrontational nature and opposition to the Vietnam War and instead focuses on his work up to the 1963 March on Washington.”