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

By on 01/18/2010 in Uncategorized

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!”