As we celebrate Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday, on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, it is important to remember that King was a radical. If he were alive today, he would certainly be joining those who will be protesting at Trump’s inauguration, rallying Americans to resist the epidemic of hate, racism, and scapegoating that Trump has inspired and encouraged and to challenge Trump’s profits-over-people agenda. But he would also be part of many ongoing grassroots struggles for social and economic justice.
Just as Trump recently defamed Cong. John Lewis, a civil rights veteran who was inspired by and worked with King, the political and corporate power structure considered King a dangerous troublemaker. King was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. The establishment’s campaign to denigrate King worked. In August 1966 — as King was bringing his civil rights campaign to Northern cities to address poverty, slums, housing segregation and bank lending discrimination — the Gallup Poll found that 63 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of King, compared with only 33 percent who viewed him favorably. This was two years after King had received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, of course, King is viewed as something of an American saint. A recent Gallup Poll discovered that 94 percent of Americans viewed him in a positive light. His birthday is a national holiday. His name adorns schools and street signs. Politicians, preachers, and professors from across the political spectrum invoke King’s name to justify their beliefs and actions.
But even those who invoke King’s name are often reluctant to point out that King was a radical and a democratic socialist. He spoke truth to power. He helped expose the hypocrisy of the nation’s leaders. At the same time, he believed in the essential good will of most Americans, even white Southerns who opposed his civil rights crusade.
The seeds of King’s radicalism were planted early. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, the son of a prominent black minister. Despite growing up in a solidly middle-class family, King saw the widespread human suffering caused by the Depression, particularly in the black community. In 1950, while in graduate school, he wrote an essay describing the “anti-capitalistic feelings” he experienced as a youngster as a result of seeing unemployed people standing in breadlines.
During King’s first year at Morehouse College, civil rights and labor activist A. Philip Randolph, a socialist, spoke on campus. Randolph predicted that the near future would witness a global struggle that would end white supremacy and capitalism. He urged the students to link up with “the people in the shacks and the hovels,” who, although “poor in property,” were “rich in spirit.”
After graduating from Morehouse in 1948, King studied theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the ministry. In 1955, he earned his doctorate from Boston University, where he studied the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential liberal theologian. While in Boston, he told his girlfriend (and future wife), Coretta Scott, that “a society based on making all the money you can and ignoring people’s needs is wrong.”
When King moved to Montgomery to take his first pulpit at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he was full of ideas but had no practical experience in politics or activism. But history sneaked up on him.
On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress and veteran activist with the NAACP, decided to resist the city’s segregation law by refusing to move to the back of the bus on her way home from work. She was arrested. Two other long-term activists ― E. D. Nixon (leader of the NAACP and of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and Jo Ann Robinson (a professor at the all-black Alabama State College and a leader of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council) — determined that Parks’ arrest was a ripe opportunity for a one-day boycott of the much-despised segregated bus system. Nixon and Robinson asked black ministers to use their Sunday sermons to spread the word. Some refused, but many others, including King, agreed. Soon King reluctantly became the public face of the boycott and was catapulted onto the national stage. The year long bus boycott was a big success and King became a public figure.
In 1957, with the help of veteran organizers Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, King launched the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help spread the civil rights crusade to other cities. He helped lead local campaigns in different cities, including Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, where thousands marched to demand an end to segregation in defiance of court injunctions forbidding any protests. While participating in these protests, King also sought to keep the fractious civil rights movement together, despite the rivalries among the NAACP, the Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SCLC.
Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles, spoke more than 2,500 times, and was arrested at least 20 times, always preaching the gospel of nonviolence. King attended workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which connected him to a network of radicals, pacifists and union activists from around the country whose ideas helped widen his political horizons. King realized that many white Americans had at least a psychological stake in perpetuating racism. He began to recognize that racial segregation was devised not only to oppress African Americans but also to keep working-class whites from challenging their own oppression by letting them feel superior to blacks. “The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” King said from the Capitol steps in Montgomery, following the 1965 march from Selma. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.”
When King launched a civil rights campaign in Chicago in 1965, he was shocked by the hatred and violence expressed by working-class whites as he and his followers marched through the streets of segregated neighborhoods in Chicago and its suburbs. He saw that the problem in Chicago’s ghetto was not legal segregation but “economic exploitation” — slum housing, overpriced food and low-wage jobs - “because someone profits from its existence.”
These experiences led King to develop a more radical outlook. King supported President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty in 1964, but, like his friend and ally Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, King thought that it did not go nearly far enough. As early as October 1964, he called for a “gigantic Marshall Plan” for the poor — black and white. In 1966 King confided to his staff:
”You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
In early 1968, King told journalist David Halberstam, “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
King kept trying to build a broad movement for economic justice that went beyond civil rights. In January, 1968, he announced plans for a Poor People’s Campaign, a series of protests to be led by an interracial coalition of poor people and their allies among middle-class liberals, unions, religious organizations and other progressive groups, to pressure the White House and Congress to expand the War on Poverty. At King’s request, socialist activist Michael Harrington (author of The Other America, which helped inspire Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to declare a war on poverty) drafted a Poor People’s Manifesto that outlined the campaign’s goals. But King was murdered before the campaign could gain momentum.
King began his activism as a crusader against racial segregation, but he soon recognized that his battle was part of a much broader fight for a more humane society. If he were alive today, King would be 88, but he would no doubt still be on the front lines, lending his voice and his energy to major battles for justice, including the following:
Income inequality and workers’ rights: More than a half-century before Occupy Wall Street, King warned about the “gulf between the haves and the have-nots.” King became increasingly committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. During the final few years of his life, King focused much of his energy on helping low-wage workers fight for rights and respect. He was in Memphis to support striking garbage workers when he was assassinated in April 1968.
Invited to address the AFL-CIO’s annual convention in 1961, King observed:
“The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”
In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, King proclaimed, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” Speaking to a meeting of Teamsters union shop stewards in 1967, King said, “Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice.”
We often forget that the historic 1963 March on Washington — where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech — called on Congress not only to pass a civil rights bill but also to raise the minimum wage. In 1963, the minimum wage was $1.25 — the equivalent of $9.96 in today’s dollars. One of the march’s specific demands was “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” The March’s manifesto pointed out that “anything less than $2 an hour fails to do this.” A $2 minimum wage in 1963 would be $15.93 an hour today.
King was proud of the civil rights movement’s success in winning the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year. But he realized that neither law did much to provide better jobs or housing for the masses of black poor in either the urban cities or the rural South. “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter,” he asked, “if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”
So we wouldn’t be surprised today to see King joining the growing numbers to improve working conditions for workers who earn poverty-level wages. He would be standing with Walmart employees, fast food workers, and others fighting for the right to unionize and an end to poverty wages. He might join with others to disrupt Wal-Mart stockholder meetings to demand that the company pay employees a living wage. And he’d be insisting the Congress raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Universal health care: King was a fervent advocate for universal health care. “Of all the forms of inequality,” he said in 1966, “injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” King would certainly oppose the repeal of the American Care Act, which would devastate the lives of tens of millions of Americans, including children. Rather than support Republican efforts to “repeal and replace,” King would call on Congress to “strengthen and expand” the current law, including tighter restriction on drug companies profiting from extraordinary high prices for medicines.
Voting rights: Along with other civil rights leaders, King fought hard to dismantle Jim Crow laws that kept blacks from voting. He was proud of his role in pushing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He’d be outraged by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling to weaken the law that, among other things, increased the number of black voters and black elected officials.
Since that ruling, Republicans in many states have adopted laws to require photo IDS in order to vote, shrink the early-voting period, and end same-day voter registration and pre-registration for teenagers who will turn 18 by Election Day. Those voter suppression efforts probably determined the outcome in November’s presidential election. Today, King would surely lend his name to those campaigns to expand, not restrict, voting rights.
Gun violence: During the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, King faced constant death threats and feared for his family’s life. He owned several guns and allowed armed guards to protect his home. But Bayard Rustin — a pacifist who was one of King’s closest advisers — persuaded King to give up his guns and guards and embrace a nonviolent strategy.
King’s commitment to nonviolence grew stronger as he grew older. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, King wrote: “By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
Today he would be in the forefront of the battle for strong gun controls and to thwart the influence of the National Rifle Association. He would demand the repeal of shoot-first “stand your ground” laws adopted by many states. He might call on cities, colleges and churches to divest from companies that manufacture military-style assault weapons.
Mass incarceration: King recognized that the criminal justice system has long had a double standard when it comes to the treatment of black and white Americans. Today he would be joining prison reform groups, the ACLU, the NAACP and others that have been protesting racial profiling by police and drug policies that have resulted in 2.3 million Americans behind bars, many for nonviolent, minor offenses. He would surely support efforts to reduce mass incarceration rates by limiting the number of people sentenced under mandatory-minimum laws.
Women’s reproductive freedom: In 1966, King was one of four recipients of Planned Parenthood’s first Margaret Sanger Award, named for the group’s founder, a pioneer in educating women about birth control. In accepting the award, King said that “there is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.” He noted how “at the turn of the century, she went into the slums and set up a birth-control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions.” Today King would be speaking at rallies and participating in vigils at state capitals to protect women’s access to health care and reproductive freedom — and challenge those in Congress who are trying to shut down and defund Planned Parenthood clinics.
Immigrant rights: King would be pleased by the growing ties between the civil rights and immigrant rights movements. In 2003, a coalition of union, immigrant, faith and civil rights groups organized an Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. More than 900 riders from nine cities traveled 20,000 miles, in the tradition of the 1960s Freedom Riders, to support immigration reform. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the original Freedom Riders and one of King’s close allies, spoke at a rally when the buses reached New York, declaring: “Martin Luther King would be very proud. We are white, black, Hispanic, Native American — we are one family, in one house, and we are not going to let anybody turn us around.”
Now a much broader coalition is pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, energized by young activists who call themselves Dreamers, a term that evokes King’s 1963 speech. Many of these young people share the values, culture and aspirations of other American youth, but they feel, as King described the typical African American 50 years ago, like “an exile in his own land.”
We would expect to see King at this week’s “We’re Here To Stay” rally at the historic Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C. — an African American church that has become a strong ally of the immigrant rights movement. It is one of many rallies around the country on behalf of immigration reform.
Housing and predatory lending: Appalled by the slums and blatant residential segregation in our major cities, especially in the North, King lobbied hard for anti-discrimination laws in the 1960s. It took King’s murder to get Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the major federal law to ban racial discrimination in housing.
Today, King would be equally outraged to learn that banks have targeted African American and Latino neighborhoods with subprime loans in recent decades. As a result, after the 2008 housing crash, about one quarter of African American and Latino homeowners their homes to foreclosure or found themselves seriously delinquent on their mortgages, compared with about 12 percent for white borrowers. From 2009 to 2012 African Americans lost about $200 billion in wealth, and the wealth gap between whites and blacks now stands at an astonishing 20 to 1 ratio.
King would find common cause with community groups around the country who are pressuring Wall Street banks to reset mortgages for underwater homeowners. He would link arms with activists, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren, seeking to resist Republican efforts to dismantle the 2010 Dodd-Frank law strengthening regulations on the financial industry, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which in its short life has already protected hundreds of thousands of consumers from bank abuse. You could expect King to oppose Trump’s nomination of Steve Mnuchin to be Secretary of Treasury who, as head of OneWest Bank, was the model of a racist and predatory lender.
LGBT equality: Typical of most Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, King did not approve of homosexuality, even though one of his close advisers, Bayard Rustin, was openly gay. But when some civil rights leaders objected to Rustin’s role as the key organizer of the March on Washington, worried that it would tarnish the movement, King insisted that Rustin stay in the job.
Since the 1960s, public opinion toward gay Americans has shifted dramatically. Had King encountered more openly gay men and women, his views probably would have evolved as well. After all, when King spoke out against state laws banning interracial marriage in 1958, he sounded a lot like those who advocate for same-sex marriage today: “When any society says that I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom.”
Today, with the support of the NAACP and a growing number of black clergy members supporting gay rights, King would stand — and sit in when necessary — with the LGBT community to help push states toward protecting same-sex marriage and ending other forms of discrimination against gay Americans.
National spending priorities: King linked the struggle for social justice with the struggle against militarism.
By 1965 he had turned against the Vietnam War, arguing that it was stealing precious resources from domestic programs and that it was “an enemy of the poor.” King was initially reluctant to speak out against the war. He understood that his fragile working alliance with LBJ would be undone if he challenged the president’s leadership on the war. Although some of his close advisers tried to discourage him, he nevertheless made the break in April 1967, in a bold and prophetic speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, entitled “Beyond Vietnam - A Time to Break the Silence.”
In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), King wrote, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” He called for a comprehensive plan to create jobs, rebuild cities, improve schools and lift the poor out of destitution.
Today, King would be working with unions, religious organizations and activist groups to cut the defense budget and redirect money to help rebuild our cities and troubled suburbs and to expand the social safety net. He’d be speaking out against House Speaker Paul Ryan’s efforts to cut food stamps, Head Start, and other anti-poverty programs. In particular, King, who had close ties to the United Auto Workers — once the backbone of a powerful labor movement that helped build the postwar middle class — would be calling on the president and Congress to help revitalize Detroit with loans and grants to create jobs, restore public services and create a smaller but more humane city.
Today, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals alike seek the wrap themselves in King’s memory. But even after King was killed, the campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor, spearheaded by Detroit Congressman John Conyers, revealed significant differences within Congress. Although Conyers began his effort soon after his murder, it did not come up for a vote in Congress until 1979, when it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage. In 1981, with the help of singer Stevie Wonder and other celebrities, supporters collected six million signatures on a petition to Congress on behalf of a King holiday. Congress finally passed legislation enacting the holiday in 1983, 15 years after King’s death. But even then, 90 members of the House (including then-Congressmen John McCain of Arizona and Richard Shelby of Alabama, both now in the Senate) voted against it. Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, led an unsuccessful effort - supported by 21 other senators, including current Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) - to block its passage in the Senate.
In his final speech in Memphis the night before he was killed, King told the crowd about a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta that morning, saying he knew that his life was constantly in danger because of his political activism.
“I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
We haven’t gotten there yet. But Dr. King is still with us in spirit. The best way to honor his memory is to continue the struggle for human dignity, workers’ rights, racial equality, peace and social justice.
Peter Dreier is a professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books)