Remembering MLK’s Anti-Capitalist Legacy

Kelton Holsen, Co-Editor-In-Chief

“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. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.”

These words were spoken by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during a 1967 Conference. King was known in his lifetime to be staunchly opposed to the capitalist system which kept the American poor, many of whom were people of color, in perpetual poverty with no conceivable means of escape. By the end of his life, King was working on organizing a “Poor People’s Campaign” to shut down the federal government until they diverted money from the Vietnam War to poverty reduction efforts in the US.

Yet today, it seems as though we have to keep reminding people that King was any sort of radical. This may be due to a popular misunderstanding of the term–“radicalism” is not contradictory to non-violence (which King was, obviously, very much in support of) but rather means, in the words of Karl Marx, to “grasp things by the root”–to see the causes that create socioeconomic problems such as racism and endemic poverty. But it also likely stems from a broader erasure of the socialist tendencies of many of our great figures who had very strong anti-capitalist tendencies, but have been whitewashed by our history into the blandest version of their accomplishments.

The broader social forces behind this erasure, the American government and wider capitalist establishment, very much like to co-opt the work of radical leaders such as Dr. King because it allows them to overshadow their own complicity in the systems that these leaders fought against. During Dr. King’s life, the US government made several threats against him, including a chilling letter from the FBI which attempted to convince King to commit suicide. There is even evidence to suggest that the US government was involved in King’s assassination, yet today there is a federal holiday named after him.

More to the point, the co-opting of the legacies of leaders like King allows organizations in power to claim some degree of responsibility for the good that they did despite having spent considerable time and resources to oppose it. The establishment is very much in favor of Dr. King being seen as a moderate who just wanted to end the surface level of racism because it allows them to shut down discussion of dismantling the systems which have given rise to racism in the first place–the same systems which keep the establishment in power. Individual organizations can also boost their reputation by latching on to social movements in superficial ways–see that infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, or even last year’s Day of Action.

If we want to truly embrace the legacy of Dr. King, and enact true justice, we must not allow his legacy to be reduced to a bandage on the deeper wounds of racism and capitalism in this country. In the words of Dr. King, spoken two weeks before he was killed, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”