Reality Check for Democrats: Would Martin Luther King Be Supporting Bernie?

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Reality Check for Democrats: Would Martin Luther King Be Supporting Bernie?

Martin Luther King Jr. and others march in Washington, DC in August 1963 demanding economic reforms, including full employment and better wages. (Photo: CWA/Local 7076)

Corporate mainstream media have sanitized and distorted the life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., putting him in the category of a “civil rights leader” who focused narrowly on racial discrimination; end of story. 

Missing from the story is that Dr. King was also a tough-minded critic of our capitalist economic structure, much like Bernie Sanders is today.

The reality is that King himself supported democratic socialism – and that civil rights activists and socialists have walked arm-in-arm for more than a century.

The same news outlets that omit such facts keep telling us that the mass of African American voters in South Carolina and elsewhere are diehard devotees of Hillary (and Bill) Clinton – implying that blacks are somehow wary of Bernie Sanders and his “democratic socialism.”

Here are some key historical facts and quotes that get almost no attention in mainstream media:

1909:  Many socialists – both blacks and whites – were involved in forming the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), our country’s oldest civil rights group.  Among them was renowned black intellectual W.E.B. Dubois.

1925:  Prominent African American socialist A. Philip Randolph became the first president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union that played a major role in activism for civil and economic rights (including the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”).

1952:  In a fascinating letter to Coretta Scott, the woman he would marry a year later, Martin King wrote: “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. . . . Today capitalism has out-lived its usefulness.” 

1965:  King wrote an essay in Pageant magazine, “The Bravest Man I Ever Knew,” extolling Norman Thomas as “America’s foremost socialist” and favorably quoting a black activist who said of Thomas: “He was for us before any other white folks were.”

1965:  After passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, King became even more vocal about economic rights: “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

1965-66:  King supported President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” but urged more – calling for a “gigantic Marshall Plan” for our naton’s poor of all races.

1966:  In remarks to staffers at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King said:

“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. . . . 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.”

March 1967:  King commented to SCLC’s board that “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

April 1967:  In his speech denouncing the U.S. war in Vietnam at New York’s Riverside Church, King extended his economic critique abroad, complaining about “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.”

May 1967:  In a report to SCLC’s staff, King said:

“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power . . . this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together . . . you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others . . . the whole structure of American life must be changed.”

August 1967:  In his final speech to SCLC, King declared:

“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?’” 

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he and SCLC were mobilizing a multiracial army of the poor to descend nonviolently on Washington D.C. demanding a “Poor Peoples Bill of Rights.” He told a New York Times reporter that “you could say we’re involved in the class struggle.”

A year before he was murdered, King said the following to journalist David Halberstam: “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South, 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.”

Unlike what Hillary Clinton professes today, Dr. King came to reject the idea of slow, incremental change.  He thought big.  He proposed solutions that could really solve social problems.

Unlike corporate-dominated U.S. media, King was not at all afraid of democratic socialism.  Other eminent African American leaders have been unafraid. Perhaps it’s historically fitting that former NAACP president Ben Jealous has recently campaigned for Bernie Sanders in South Carolina.

If mainstream journalists did more reporting on the candidates’ actual records, instead of crystal-ball gazing about the alleged hold that the Clintons have over African American voters, news consumers would know about the deplorable record of racially-biased incarceration and economic hardship brought on by Clinton administration policies. (See Michelle Alexander’s “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.”)

With income inequality even greater now than during Martin Luther King’s final years, is there much doubt that King would be supporting the progressive domestic agenda of Bernie Sanders?

Before Bernie was making these kinds of big economic reform proposals, King was making them – but mainstream media didn’t want to hear them at the time . . . or now.

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media - and a cofounder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org.

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