Martin Luther King: We Are Not Interested in Being Integrated into This Value Structure

It’s Martin Luther King Day here in the US. We celebrate it by giving banks a holiday, and letting working people get overtime. The Martin Luther King who’ll be on our screens is a memory filtered of its radical light. Particularly in his later life, King had a sharp diagnosis about how the evils of militarism, racism and poverty had a root cause. That cause? Capitalism. Will we hear about that on CNN, from the President, on the news? Not likely.

In his last speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1967, quoted below and available in full here, he said:

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 questions 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 market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. 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 is two thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked.

The FBI, in a trope that we see in South Africa today, explained King’s rejection of capitalism through the fact that he’d been brainwashed by the dangerous white folk around him. One of those friends, Stanley Levison, explained this simply as a function of the FBI’s

“racist contempt for the intellect of the black man. No one with a modicum of sense … could have concluded that a man with the force of intellect and fierce independence that Martin King had could have been dominated by anybody…”

King wasn’t anyone’s dupe – and that means that he was critical of the Soviet Union too, as you’ll see in the excerpt below, and from the line:

“Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis.”

So how to reconcile the fact that King rejected communism, but claimed to be a Marxist? One way is to observe that the practice of the Soviet Union had very little to do with Marxism. To see that governments’ actions in the name of an ideology may be systematically at odds with that ideology is not a bad argument. It’s one that helps to the Dalai Lama reconcile his ‘economic and social Marxism’ with the horrors of the Chinese Communist state or, indeed, for Chicago economists to say that the reason the US is a mess is because it’s insufficiently capitalist. But this is to sell Dr. King short. King had specific quarrels with Marx, while finding more social justice in Marx than in the works of Milton Friedman. King was critically engaged with Marx.

“I always look at Marx with a yes and a no. And there were some thigns that Karl Marx did that were very good. Some very good things. If you read him, you can see that this man had a great passion for social justice… [But] Karl Marx got messed up, first because he didn’t stick with that Jesus that he had read about; but secondly because he didn’t even stick with Hegel…Now this is where I leave Brother Marx and move on toward the Kingdon [of Brotherhood] … I am simply saying that God never intended for some of his children to live in inordinate superfluous wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty.”

(As quoted in the excellent Fairclough, A. (1983). “Was Martin Luther King a Marxist?” Hist Workshop J 15(1): 117-125.)

Ultimately, King thought of himself as a Democratic Socialist, suspicious of the state but wanting to reclaim it through grassroots organising. Toward the end of his life he said to an SCLC planning meeting that “Something is wrong with capitalism as it now stands in the United States. We are not interested in being integrated into this value structure… a radical redistribution of power must take place.” His vision was translated into action. The Poor People’s Campaign was a direct attempt to answer the questions about society, about distribution, about value, and do something about them.

It is this Martin Luther King that we ought to celebrate today. As always, we celebrate him best, when we organise. Here’s excerpt from his own thoughts of Where We Go From Here.

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love, I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” that we honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And 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 questions 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 market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. 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 is two thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked.

About Communism

Now, don’t think that you have me in a “bind” today. I’m not talking about Communism.

What I’m saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

If you will let me be a preacher just a little bit – One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t get bogged down in the kind of isolated approach of what he shouldn’t do. Jesus didn’t say, “Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.” HE didn’t say, “Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.” He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery.” He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, now you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.” He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic – that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down in one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.”

He said, in other words, “Your whole structure must be changed.” A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, “America, you must be born again!”

7 Replies to “Martin Luther King: We Are Not Interested in Being Integrated into This Value Structure”

  1. I’m not surprised that there aren’t any comments. We like to remember King for his, “I Have a Dream” speech, and little else. Our country has made of King an empty icon, which bears little resemblance to the man that left us so long ago.

    Thank you for this article. I hope it spreads.

  2. Nice write-up on King. Bayard Rustin was a close advisor to King and a great man in his own right. What’s interesting is how we study these people in school (people like King, Gandhi, Tolstoy, etc), but we (as a society) know so little about them. For example, Helen Keller is on the back of the new Alabama state quarter. It’s no secret that Alabama is a red state. And I am a great admirer of Helen Keller. What’s funny/sad is how most people don’t know:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_keller#Political_activities

    Why could this be? How do we uphold important figures but know so little about them? So many people in history held similar progressive views. And these views are still controversial today– I can’t imagine what it must have been like 50+ years ago to hold such views. Ultimately, I guess that’s why Gandhi and King were assassinated. The Wikipedia section I linked says, “Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency.

    Keller and her friend Mark Twain were both considered radicals at the beginning of the 20th century, and as a consequence, their political views have been forgotten or glossed over in popular perception.” When will we realize that so many of our heralded historical figures have held these “radical” views for a long time? I am not necessarily saying that just because famous and important people hold certain views that those views must be correct, but I don’t like how our history lessons conveniently omit things that were important to the very people we are trying to learn about…

  3. Rich, Poor all are one, all can be educated if given the chance, all can be equal in honour, dignity and justice. Being brought up in a poor community, lack of self esteem, difficulties that only the poor can understand. Being told at school that one had potential and not believing. Working all hours in a factory and never seeing light of day. I had to change my life and began consciously to educate myself. Getting married and put into a stricture of no freedom to be me. Not supposed to do this or that and definitely not education. Uphill struggle to bring children up and then gaining another child when the partner finished working in the market because of an accident.

    A partner turning into a dictator in the home because he no longer had a means to grow into being a good leader in the market place. Going to university in order to get a degree to make life better for my family because or the realisation that my partner would never do it now. Finally having to leave home because of stifling oppression, giving up my home rather than selling it because of a threat to burn it down rather than share it. Ending back in a council estate where I first began and even further down the ladder than then, with nothing but my dignity and honour intact. Now I find that I cannot get work because of age discrimination, that my degree counts for nothing except to make me more aware of the discriminations, hatreds, ideologies that are all out of time. So what does it seem that I, from a personal angle have to look forward to – I will tell you, the day I die.
    From a group angle – hopefully in life and, out my contribution in a spiritual way to the furthering of Right Human Relations. A job would be nice though (smile).

    Keep thinking from love, nurture it as I am learning, not easy when life is difficult, but that is perhaps the best challenge, not easy. Becoming a better person, soul is never easy is it. Keep it up no matter what. The very best of wishes to you, in love and light.

  4. A book of truth. ‘The Value of Nothing’ is a book that should be read by every student of economics; especially, those who do not believe that free choices and true value is independent of the ideals of capitalism. I strongly believe that if everyone – excluding those that have already done so – could see the world through the eyes of Raj Patel, then we can all live in a better place.

    Praise to Patel for his high-spirited work on matters affecting our world. He has continued on the path of righteousness for our sake ever since my first encounter with him at a conference at Humber College on the global food crisis.

  5. I think it’s commendable that Dr. Martin L. King’s life is being celebrated. I don’t think Dr. King repudiated capitalism. He saw it as a tool to advance people, but he saw how it could be abused by racist thinking. I think Dr. King is one of the greatest Americans since the founding of our country. I especially like the idea that his spiritual relevance is being spotlighted. He transformed our society from one permeated with racism to one in which most people regardless of their race or culture can participate.
    I once met Dr. King when I was a teenager. A local supermarket chain refused to hire black teens as bag boys and I was one of the teenagers who was not allowed to work. Dr. King and his organization SCLC led a protest/picket campaign. Dr. King spoke at a local theatre one night and I got to meet him one on one! I’ll remember the experience and what he told me forever. I tell of this chance meeting with one of the greatest heroes in American culture, in my book, “Talking Penny.”

  6. Good article. I get so tired of people calling Dr. King a communist. He was not a saint, and he had some profound moral failures in his personal life; but he most certainly was not a communist. A socialist? Yes,fair to say that. But communism is inherently atheistic, and this is why King rejected it in no uncertain terms. The Christian gospel formed and shaped all of King’s beliefs and actions. Rather than trying to put a political label on Dr. King, it is best to understand that he was a Christian first and foremost, and his philosophy and opinions were shaped by Christ not by communism or capitalism.

  7. “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked.”
    Here’s a question that should be asked, in one word: SERIOUSLY? Was this guy four years old? I mean, why should we pay the water fairies to put water in our taps? Why should we pay for air-conditioning when half the world’s air is cold? Why should I pay for my seafood dinner when three thousandths of the sea is fish? These are questions that must be asked (if you are four years old and retarded).

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