The radical gospel of Martin Luther King

King’s democratic socialism, anti-imperialism and black prophetic Christianity were fundamental to his identity

January 20, 2014 12:15PM ET
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963, with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., center.
Robert W. Kelley/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. is ubiquitous. A federal holiday, a monument and a plethora of schools and streets bearing his name have cemented his presence on the cultural landscape of the United States. Liberals and conservatives alike appropriate King’s language to adorn their political wardrobes and buttress their ideological constructions.

While the popular rendering of King is one of a civil rights leader who now enjoys widespread acceptability in American public discourse, his radical politics and his rough-edged critique of U.S. imperial adventures have been smoothed over. The real King was committed to a democratic socialist vision that germinated from his black church roots. Specifically, there are three pillars of the radical gospel of Martin Luther King Jr. that we should not allow holiday remembrances to whitewash: democratic socialism, transnational anti-imperialism and black prophetic Christianity.

Democratic socialism

King’s anti-capitalist feelings began when, as a child, he saw the bread lines during the Great Depression and asked his parents about the poor and hungry. “I can see the effects of this early childhood experience on my present anti-capitalistic feelings,” he recalled in paper during his divinity-student days in 1950. According to Coretta Scott King, the man she would go on to marry was the first Negro she had met who said he was a democratic socialist. In a July 1952 love letter, the smitten King lay bare his socialist heart. Of capitalism, he said that he “failed to see its relative merits” and believed that it had “outlived its usefulness.” He made a striking confession: “I am more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” For King, capitalism was “a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” Though he noted that was bitterly “opposed to the metaphysical structure of communism as well as Marxism,” he learned from reading Karl Marx “that religion can so easily become a tool of the middle class to keep the proletariat oppressed. Too often the church talked about a future good ‘over yonder’ totally forgetting the present evil over here.” In his love letter, King said he would “welcome the day” there would be “the nationalization of industry” — a socialist measure. As his profile rose, King was not as forthcoming in his socialist leanings in many of his public lectures.

Having attended the 1960 inauguration of socialist President Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, King continued to be a keen observer of revolutionary movements around the globe. Noted anti-imperialist Marxist C.L.R. James recalled that King made it clear during their 1964 meeting in London that he agreed with James’ Marxist analysis. King, according to James, accepted Marx’s critique of capitalism but would not state this publicly because of the anti-communist hysteria in the United States. Michael Harrington, author of the agenda of the Poor People’s Campaign — the 1968 effort by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to demonstrate for economic justice — and eventual founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, believed that King was careful in his public pronouncements on socialism because it could alienate liberals and perhaps confuse his followers. 

Nevertheless, in a 1966 planning meeting he understood that the Poor People’s Campaign took on a more radical critique of capitalism and reaffirmed his commitment to democratic socialist eschatology: “Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying something is wrong … with capitalism … There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” Publicly, King couched his democratic socialism in the language of economic equality and his association with the left wing of the Untied States labor movement. 

This key feature of the gospel is evidenced in King relationship with the labor movement. King continuously connects his calling as a minister and the gospel of economic justice. King spent time on picket lines, and his speeches to unions proved a fertile ground for leftist theology. In “All Labor Has Dignity,” Michael K. Honey points out, “King’s leftist union associations had helped him to develop an experiment in labor-civil-rights solidarity that lasted until his death.” King’s lectures in union halls were filled with references to economic justice. In fact, he considered himself a part of the local 1199 union in New York City. Upon his return from accepting the Noble Peace Prize in 1964, King joined striking black women at the Scripto pen factory and helped negotiate a settlement. He consistently worked with unions to ensure economic rights.  

King’s gospel affirmed black resistance as a form of human dignity and rejected forms of Christianity that favored peace without justice and complacency in the face of immorality.

King was attempting to use unions “to redeem the soul of a nation.” A step on the path to redemption was the institution of a guaranteed income — a staple proposal in the socialist agenda. In his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” King stated, “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” By providing individuals with permanent economic resources, the United States could be a more just nation based on King’s critical reading of Scripture and society.

A decade later, King returned to the question of communism. In his Sept. 30, 1962, sermon “Can a Christian Be a Communist?” at Ebenezer Baptist Church, he makes clear that Christianity cannot be reconciled with communism but at the same time welcomes Marx’s critique of profit motives. Communism offers “a necessary corrective for a Christianity that has been all too passive and a democracy that has been all too inert,” King suggests. He went on to raise the issue of wealth inequality — “One-tenth of 1 percent of the population of this nation controls almost 50 percent of the wealth, and I don’t mind saying that there’s something wrong with that.” In this sermon, as with his letter to his beloved, King draws a clear distinction between being a communist and a Christian while upholding a sustained Marxist critique of capitalism, which had a long history in Christian socialism.

In his final speech on April 3, 1968, King offered an interesting exegesis related to economic justice. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union was locked in an intense battle with the Memphis, Tenn., government on the behalf of sanitation workers whose subhuman work conditions had led to two deaths. King used the biblical tale of the Good Samaritan — reading the black sanitation workers as the wounded traveler saved by the title hero of the story. He called on the audience to risk their livelihoods and stand with the sanitation workers through participating in an economic boycott. Exhorting the congregation to go to the “massive industries” and tell them, “God sent us by here to say to you that you’re not treating his children right.” In King’s gospel, the abused sanitation workers and black poor who experience social discrimination and economic deprivation are central to God’s vision for redeeming the world. 


King’s radical vision of justice also led him to criticize the United States’ imperial ambitions abroad, especially regarding the Vietnam War. In fact, he linked the anti-communist fervor on domestic economic matters to our immoral military ventures overseas.

He made this linkage clear during a speech he delivered on Feb. 23, 1968, at Carnegie Hall in New York City honoring W.E.B. DuBois on the centennial of his birth. King’s reverence for DuBois — a Harvard-educated author and anti-imperialist activist who moved to Nkrumah’s socialist experiment in Africa — offers a glimpse of King’s understanding of the reception of socialism and communism in the United States. DuBois, according to King, “was a genius and chose to be a communist. Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.” King’s words on DuBois indicate the level of hysteria associated with communism, a label that dogged DuBois and King all of their public lives. This verifies King’s hesitancy about being more forthright at times in his own socialist leaning. Linking his anti-war work to DuBois’, King then comments that the spirit of anti-communism had led to the United States to a regrettable conflict in Vietnam. 

A year before the Carnegie Hall speech, on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church, King spoke out against the Vietnam War. He went on the bear witness to his calling as minister of the gospel, broke the betrayal of his own silences, and “called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam.” His opposition to the Vietnam War was grounded in his understanding of the biblical narrative. Speaking “as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam,” King was obligated to challenge the U.S.’s engagement in Southeast Asia. Noting that the Gospel was for capitalist and communist alike, the war in Vietnam was an enemy of the poor that therefore must be condemned.

King saw the African-American freedom struggle as a part of a world revolution that America was at risk of sleeping through. In his final speech, at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, the night before he was assassinated, King observed, “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today — whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Ga.; Jackson, Miss.; or Memphis, Tenn. — the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’” Although his immediate concern was to address the plight of Memphis sanitation workers, he saw the local struggle as part of the larger anti-colonial fight throughout the world. 

Black prophetic Christianity

King’s radicalism went beyond economic and international affairs and addressed the practice of Christianity itself. For King, the kerygma, or heart, of the black church, writ large, begins with the humanity of black people and their quest for justice in this world. In the context of America and its oppression of people of color both at home and abroad, the black assertion of their humanity cannot help being a left-of-center enterprise. Black Christianity’s social protest was the wellspring of King’s Christianity and reshaped the entire Christian narrative and self-understanding.  

King’s gospel affirmed black resistance as a form of human dignity and rejected forms of Christianity that favored peace without justice and complacency in the face of immorality. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he warned moderate clergy that unless they “recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity.” King draws heavily upon the black Christian social gospel, which emerges out of the history of black suffering in the United States. Although he became the most famous, he was but one of a great host of black Christian socialist witnesses, including the Rev. George Washington Woodbey, the Rev. Richard Euell and the Rev. George Slater Jr.

During the 50th anniversary celebrations of the March on Washington, King was compared to the formative figures of American democracy, such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Even his monument sits in dialogue with these great democratic icons. But his project deserves to be held in the same breath as the man he was named after, Martin Luther. Like Luther’s 95 theses, the gospel of Martin Luther King Jr. demands a reformation of Christianity. His public ministry sits at the center of a revolutionary vision of Christian democratic socialism — redefining our understanding of the work of the church and Christianity. 

Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King Papers Project at Stanford University.  He has been on the ground in Ferguson for the past three months organizing on the behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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