“We made an indifferent and unconcerned nation rise from lethargy and subpoenaed its conscience to appear before the judgment seat of morality on the whole question of civil rights.” (Dr. King, 1967)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister, a brilliant orator, and a prolific civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968 at age 39. Today he is primarily remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech, his role in organizing the Montgomery bus boycott, and for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King’s life of activism helped inspire the passage of historic racial justice legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Americans are taught that Dr. King was a popular and universally cherished leader. King, we are told, was charismatic, passionate, yet essentially non-political; he wanted to make the world a better place without rocking the boat. However, the Revered Martin Luther King, Jr. was a complicated historical figure, and our collective understanding of his legacy is oversimplified. Here are five facts about Dr. King that are often omitted from American discourse.
1. King constantly criticized American capitalism.
In addition to his well-known battle against racism, Dr. King was a tireless advocate for economic justice. He regularly worked with labor unions, and even wrote the introduction to a popular booklet that proposed a “second New Deal,” which was distributed by prominent unions. King’s economic vision largely stemmed from his religious faith and his belief in the “social gospel.”
In his final speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, King said:
“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
This wariness toward capitalism was not a late-in-life phenomenon. Here are a few excerpts from a speech Dr. King gave in 1956:
“They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem.”
“You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe ‘enough and to spare' for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.”
King’s anti-capitalist stance can even be verified as early as 1952. That year, in a letter to his wife Coretta, King wrote, “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. […] Today capitalism has outlived its usefulness.”
2. He was vehemently anti-war.
The general public was first introduced to Dr. King’s anti-war perspective in 1965, when he told reporters that “millions of dollars can be spent every day to hold troops in South Viet Nam and our country cannot protect the rights of Negroes in Selma.” During the following years, King continued to articulate his vision for peace, ultimately culminating in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech. Here are several pertinent excerpts from that message, which King delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in Harlem:
“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
“They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1954 […] after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.”
“So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children.”
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. 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.”
“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.”
As was the case with his innate anti-capitalism, Dr. King did not suddenly begin opposing war later in life; “deep currents of anti-imperialism” could be found in King’s writings, even in those from his earlier days as a student. But this unconventional conviction proved even more detrimental to King’s reputation than his critique of economic injustice.
In the aftermath of this infamous speech, one poll found that only 9 percent of the general public sympathized with King’s views on Vietnam. Scores of Southern Christian Leadership Conference donors announced the withdrawal of their support, 168 newspapers denounced him, and President Johnson ended his formal relationship with King.
3. He practiced armed self-defense.
After white supremacists bombed his house in 1956, King applied for a concealed handgun permit. Although the permit was ultimately denied, King still kept firearms in his home, and armed guards often protected King and his family. As journalist Adam Winkler explained in The Atlantic, “one adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as ‘an arsenal.’ William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil-rights movement, almost sat on a loaded gun in a living-room armchair during a visit to King’s parsonage.”
Dr. King would eventually give up his guns and wholeheartedly embrace pacifism, but armed self-defense nevertheless played a central role in the civil rights movement. As author and civil rights activist Charles E. Cobb, Jr. explained,
“Consider the mid-20th century Southern Freedom Movement. People are often startled when I insist that guns helped make that movement possible, but guns were a routine part of Southern life. They helped put food on the table in poor rural communities. They were used to fend off night riders seeking to murder civil rights activists and their supporters. Indeed, few Southern homes — Black or White — were without guns.
Guns were not the problem — but how they were used was critical. Klansmen and the like defended White supremacy through violence. Their actions were backed by state and local governments and largely ignored by the federal government. The armed resistance of local movement supporters was invaluable to the movement’s survival. Groups such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice of Louisiana, formed to protect nonviolent workers of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), or the ‘Black Guard’ formed in Monroe, N.C., by NAACP leader Robert Williams, were consciously political, highly disciplined and visibly active in protecting movement activists. But their contributions are erased by a canon that defines the Movement as ‘nonviolent.’”
4. The FBI monitored and threatened him.
Conventional American discourse often mythologizes King as a hero who was universally beloved — even during his lifetime. The truth is that J. Edgar Hoover said he was “the most notorious liar in the country,” President Johnson called him a “goddamn nigger preacher,” and the FBI spied on him and attempted to intimidate him. A Gallup poll even found that 63 percent of Americans held a negative view of King in 1966 (before his “Beyond Vietnam” speech). It turns out Dr. King’s fervent denunciation of white supremacy, capitalism, and military aggression was perceived as a real threat to the political establishment and the prevailing social order.
One of the most shocking revelations on this topic is a document that became known as the “suicide letter.” On November 21, 1964, the King household received a poorly written letter attempting to blackmail Dr. King with alleged secrets regarding his sex life. The anonymous author employed a vitriolic tone, referring to King as “vile,” “adulterous,” “immoral,” and, near the end, as an “evil, abnormal beast.” The now infamous missive, which King correctly surmised was the work of Hoover’s FBI, concluded with a thinly veiled invitation to suicide:
“King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant. You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
In short, this disgusting stunt was the FBI’s attempt to “neutralize” Dr. King. The agency’s wish came true on April 4, 1968, when King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
5. King’s family members do not believe James Earl Ray was the assassin.
Based on what we now know about the FBI’s paranoid disdain for King’s activism (as well as the government’s coordinated assassination of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton), it is certainly reasonable to question the official narrative surrounding King’s death. In lieu of speculation, here is a summary of the facts:
- On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis supporting striking workers and preparing for an upcoming march. While standing on the balcony of his hotel room, King was shot in the neck just after 6:00 p.m. and pronounced dead about an hour later.
- After a ten-month international manhunt, James Earl Ray was found, arrested, and quickly confessed to the murder of King. Three days later, Ray changed his story, recanting his confession and insisting his lawyer had coerced him into taking the guilty plea. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
- Due to the FBI’s history of harassing and monitoring King, his family doubted the agency’s objectivity (to say the least) as it led the investigation of King’s assassination.
- In 1993, a man named Loyd Jowers claimed in a television interview that King’s death had been the result of a conspiracy involving organized crime and the U.S. government, and that he had participated in this plot as well.
- In 1997, King’s son Dexter visited James Earl Ray in prison to personally ask Ray if he had indeed killed King. Ray replied, “No, no, I didn’t, no. But like I say, sometimes these questions are difficult to answer, and you have to make a personal evaluation.”
- After this interaction between Ray and her son, Coretta Scott King decided to file suit against Jowers. In the subsequent 1999 civil trial, the jury unanimously found Jowers (and unnamed others) culpable in King’s murder. The hearing lasted four weeks and included the testimonies of 70 witnesses, although Jowers himself did not take the stand during the proceedings.
“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.” (Dr. King, 1967)
The tendency to whitewash the bold statements and actions of Dr. King has become an American tradition. As history professor Thomas J. Sugrue puts it, “there is probably no figure in recent American history whose memory is more distorted, whose message is more bowdlerized, whose powerful words are more drained of content than King.” Scholar and public intellectual Dr. Cornel West refers to this process as the “Santa Clausification” of King’s legacy.
In addition to this widespread distortion through omission, there is also a history of reactionaries hijacking King’s image and cherry-picking his words in attempt to claim him as one of their own. For instance, in the wake of the recent NFL protests, a popular meme claimed that King “didn’t take the knee in protest of the flag or the anthem, he took the knee in prayer to God.” This implies that Dr. King would have turned a blind eye to horrific systemic racism and police violence, and obediently saluted a flag that represents vicious imperialism abroad and neoliberal tyranny at home. This notion is, of course, patently ridiculous.
The truth is that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an uncompromising social justice warrior and a left-wing radical who defied the liberal establishment, abhorred military conquest, denounced capitalist exploitation, and gave his life to dismantle white supremacy. Were King alive today, he would be on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement, the anti-war movement, and the progressive political movement more broadly. We can begin to honor his memory and his sacrifice by simply admitting this.