The Radical Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is more complex than the saintly singular focus on civil rights we most attribute to him today. A radical in his time, many of his ideas would still land far left even in today’s political field.

A Radical in the Making

In 1955, King arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, to preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Fate supplanted intent when, soon after his arrival, Rosa Parks’ arrest sparked the movement leading to the Montgomery bus boycotts. With the help of many others, he rallied black residents to participate in the boycotts and became reluctant president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Over the succeeding years, he refined his skills as an orator and leader. King’s vision for America grew long sighted when he observed the connection between social justice, human dignity, workers' rights, and racial equality.

King suffered for his convictions. Between 1957 and 1968, he spoke more than 2,500 times and was arrested at least 20 times, all while promoting nonviolence. His suffering only intensified as his criticisms grew to encompass capitalism, poverty, war and democracy, and culminated in his assassination in 1968.

Calling on the Labor Movement

King saw the intersection of labor and civil rights as an asset and campaigned for cooperation between civil rights leaders and union activists.

At the 1961 American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) convention, King opined:

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.

The 1963 protest rally at the Lincoln Memorial, it is oft forgotten, was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Within his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered that day, he says, “One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Concomitant with labor struggles, King scrutinized the intersection of capitalism and poverty. He confided to his staff in 1966:

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.

The following year, in a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City, he roundly condemned the Vietnam War and outlined the hypocrisy of the United States’ history and intentions there. Again, he connected capitalism and national values:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

King’s elucidation of global inequality and exploitation, sadly, still holds true today:

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

In further pursuit of economic justice, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) drafted an Economic Bill of Rights in 1968 followed by plans for a Poor People's Campaign to pressure the White House and Congress to expand the War on Poverty.

The Economic Bill of Rights demanded:

  1. "A meaningful job at a living wage"
  2. "A secure and adequate income" for all those unable to find or do a job
  3. "Access to land" for economic uses
  4. "Access to capital" for poor people and minorities to promote their own businesses
  5. Ability for ordinary people to "play a truly significant role" in the government

King’s last speech was delivered in support of African American sanitation workers striking in Memphis, Tennessee. He was assassinated the next day, but his struggle for equal rights has lived on. It’s important to remember King was not only a preacher calling for nonviolence in a violent world; he was a radical force condemning the systematic oppression of racism, war, and economic and social inequality.

A Radical Legacy

If King were alive today, what would he be fighting for? He would certainly be a voice in the Black Lives Matter movement against violent oppression. During the recession, he might have condemned Wall Street and supported the Occupy Movement protesting in Zuccotti Park. He would surely take up the campaign for labor rights with fast food workers, teachers, and others fighting for a living wage. He would continue to promote a revolution of values and a re-evaluation of what is just.

Today, I am fortified by Dr. King's words and vision. Let us honor him by taking on the mantle of his radical revolution, lighting the way for justice and equality around the world.


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