Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most well-recognized figures in historical and contemporary American culture. His contributions to the civil, human, and labor rights movements are undeniably significant, and his anti-violence rhetoric remained resolute. The phrase “radical socialist” is utilized as an insult by moderates and conservatives alike in today’s fractured political climate. Although many people today seem to enjoy hand-picking King’s peaceful pleas for equality, his insistent moral demands are largely ignored. This essay intends to offer deeper consideration of Martin Luther King Jr’s socioeconomic beliefs, including how his message is wrongly portrayed to justify social and economic inaction against the working class.
In 2020, the United States has experienced an overflow of controversy. Police brutality, massive protests, and disagreements about public hygiene represent just a few of the pressing issues that have further divided Americans. The majority of voting citizens in the US do agree on one thing; this country is no place for radical socialists, outside agitators, or other mysterious figures lurking in the shadows. Messaging is important in today’s society; slogans like “defund the police” turn the moderate voter’s face sour - something the actual police murder of an innocent black citizen has failed to do.
The issue to be taken with the irreverence of King’s words is that his beliefs and policy expectations were thoroughly anti-capitalist. Enlisting King’s words toward the pacification of human and workers’ rights is blasphemy at least. Although peaceful, King was far from accepting of the conditions that people of color and poor people faced. In his speech, Beyond Vietnam, King said “We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.”
King not only insisted that conditions should improve but was specific about which policy changes needed to take place for a more equal society to unfold. He insisted that he couldn’t continue to speak out against violence without addressing his own government, the largest perpetrator of violence in the world. He was totally anti-war and famously said “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death”. King was also a social activist who took a serious interest in improving conditions for the poor. He was notably assassinated while in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had been visiting to support an ongoing strike by sanitation workers. It's no coincidence that King’s peaceful outreach within his own race was acceptable, even admirable; but when his outreach extended to the poor population as a whole, it led to the end of his life.
Near the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was extremely disliked by the public for his anti-war and pro-socialist views. A 1968 poll revealed that 3 out of 4 whites being polled disapproved of his message denouncing the Vietnam War, a war that later became generally acknowledged as a massive failure and human rights violation by the United States. King escalated his controversial statements about war and the rich elite, which drove public disdain for him in his last days. Ironically enough, in 1964 he’d earned the title of TIME Magazine’s Man of the Year - before his actions began to extend past giving unity speeches. Just a few years later he was widely-hated and later assassinated for highlighting the conditions of poor citizens in the United States.
In his later appeals to social justice with speeches like Beyond Vietnam and The Other America, King defended the integrity of rioters and openly chastised the imperialist actions of the United States in Vietnam. In Letter From A Birmingham Jail, King demolishes incrementalist framing of civil rights protesting, condemns moderate liberals as worse than the KKK, and rips apart the religious leaders’ attempts to silence his demands of racial equality. Ideals of basic human rights for communities of color and a fair wage for the working class drew heavy criticism for him on a national level, which resulted in a majority of disapproval from the public for King. Just as the US had done with the Vietnam War, it crafted a narrative around King’s name that eventually led to his assassination. Even though King fought for the majority of the poor, most of them disliked him due to the effectiveness of US propaganda, a theme consistent with a significant portion of the United States’ imperialist efforts.
The issues that Martin Luther King Jr. fought for, especially in his last few years, are still prevalent contemporarily - over 50 years later. Moderatism and incrementalism, issues that King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and many other revolutionaries wrestled against, are more prevalent ideologies than ever. While King’s quotes of peace are abundantly plastered about during the month of February, his true ideals and beliefs are dismissed each day by the political hierarchy in America. Republicans and Democrats alike imprecate King’s likeness as a performative gimmick while insisting that social programs be cut in order to build extra missiles. Although King examined the criminality of the United States in Vietnam over a half-century ago, the machine is still very well oiled. It’s very plain that if Martin Luther King Jr. were a social activist in our current society, he’d be written off as a “radical socialist” by moderates and conservatives alike. King expressed hopes in severing the everlasting wars, increasing social programs for the poor, and the fundamental right of humans to live outside of poverty. Basic human rights should be embraced in the richest country in the history of the world, and King gave his life to reach that conclusion publicly.
Drehle, David Von, and Tawny S. “We Honor Martin Luther King Jr. Not for His Victories but for His Vision.” The Harris Poll, 21 Jan. 2019, theharrispoll.com/we-honor-martin-luther-king-jr-not-for-his-victories-but-for-his-vision/.
King, Martin L. “The Other America.” Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement -- The Other America, www.crmvet.org/docs/otheram.htm.
King, Martin L. “‘Beyond Vietnam.’” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 30 Jan. 2020, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam.