Celebrating the struggle of Martin Luther King Jr

 American mainstream media every year focus on civil rights movement but ignore King's thoughts on capitalism, inequality, racisms and democratic socialism 

Americans celebrate great civil rights icon Martin Luther King Junior on the third Monday of January every year, declared as Martin Luther King Day in 1986. He was assassinated by a white supremacist 54 years ago at the young age of 39. But his ideas and struggle live on.

From the American president to the top executives of big corporations and corporate media – everyone pays homage to him for his struggle. They highlight one aspect of his struggle – the civil rights movement but they consciously ignore the other aspect of his struggle against inequality, poverty and exploitation of the capitalist system. They will never tell us that he was a democratic socialist and wanted to see America as a welfare state. They will never tell us his thoughts about the capitalist system.

King was against all sorts of discrimination, injustice and exploitation. His dream was not about an unequal America, which it has become today. The US is among the highly unequal countries of the world. The gap between the rich and the poor has increased in the last 40 years. His dream was about an equal and just America. This is not the America King dreamed about.

When the state and the ruling class embrace icons of struggle like Bhagat Singh in India, Che Guevara in Latin America and Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara in Africa, they personify them as national heroes but hide their anti-capitalist ideas.

The Indian ruling class portrays Bhagat Singh as great freedom fighter who sacrificed his life at a young age for freedom in India but never tell us that he was a revolutionary socialist who fought for social change. The same is the case with Che Guevara and other icons of struggle for people’s rights and social change.

They try to hide the fact that they were all killed because of their radical ideas and struggles against imperialism. They try to legitimise their economic and social structures with their images. But the fact remains that all those great icons of struggles fought against the same economic and social structures the ruling class wants to protect.

Martin Luther King fought for equality and economic , political and human rights for African Americans, the working class and poor communities and all victims of injustice and exploitation through peaceful protest. He led watershed events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which helped bring about such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Since the emergence of popular moments like Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street or Political Revolution, radical young people have found renewed interests in the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr.

The ideas of democratic socialism started to echo in American society. The movement of democratic socialism around Senator Bernie Sanders is the continuation of what King started in 1968 as the Poor People’s Campaign. He was focused on building a multi-racial working class movement for economic justice and equality before he was assassinated.

His struggle against racial discrimination, exploitation and repression of the black population and the working people of America and for equal rights still inspire millions to continue the fight against injustice, discrimination and exploitation.

The increased inequality and class divide in the US and the rest of the world in the last three decades have made the struggle and ideas of MLK more relevant than ever before.

Every year in its report on rising inequality Oxfam reminds us how unequal this world has become in the last three decades.

Oxfam’s recent report says that 2,153 super rich billionaires now own more wealth than the 4.6 billion poor people of our world. That is nearly 60 percent population of the world. The Oxfam report revealed “that unpaid or underpaid work by women and girls adds three times more to the global economy each year than the technology industry.”


I have always admired Martin Luther King Junior as a great civil rights leader, powerful orator and one of the most influential American political figures of the 20th century. But like many other in the left movement, I never fully understood the significance and relevance of his economic thoughts and political ideas to the world in which we live today.

I used to believe that Martin Luther King became radical in the last years of his life. But after reading Michael Honey’s book, ‘To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and fight for Economic Justice’, published in 2018, I realised how little I knew about the true legacy of the civil rights icon beyond the civil rights movement.

This book helps us understand the true legacy of Martin Luther King and what he really stood for in his entire life.

The book makes two things clear. One, Martin Luther King was a democratic socialist who believed in building a broad movement of working people and African Americans to overcome the failings of capitalism and achieve both racial and economic equality for all people. He correctly connected the emancipation of African Americans with the emancipation of the working people of America.

For him, the only solution to America’s crisis of poverty was the redistribution of wealth. In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, King said, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”

Second, from his early letters to his friend and future wife Coretta Scott until his final days, King put forward a vision of a society that provides equality for people of all races and backgrounds. This is the cause King spent his life fighting for.

King was a critic of the Vietnam War and a supporter of workers’ rights. He was a formerly incarcerated gun-owner, stalked by the FBI, accused of communist leanings though he loudly critiqued the Communist Party, and was staunchly opposed to wealth inequality and poverty. If he lived today, he would not be celebrated for these beliefs, at least not in the mainstream.

Not only did King fight for civil rights, but he also argued for a Universal Basic Income and the creation of a ‘nonviolent army of the poor’ through his poor people’s campaign, continued by his wife after his assassination. The platform of King’s Poor People’s Campaign involved a demand for a $ investment in a ‘real war on poverty’ – a direct critique of democratic president Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.

He also wanted a guaranteed annual wage for all Americans and the building of quality low-cost housing across the United States. To contend with King’s legacy and beliefs, we have to acknowledge that many of them centered on poverty.

Ironically, some of the best evidence of King’s radical ideas comes from the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELORO) led by J. Edgar Hoover, which followed King for years and suspected him of communism. In a 1966 Gallop poll, King’s approval rating was at 33%. This dismantles the idea that King had universal support at the time of his activism.

By co-opting King’s public image, conservatives (and liberals, too) can align themselves with historical civil rights battles while ignoring ongoing issues of labor rights, police violence and the housing crisis in most major cities across the US.

 King wrote: “there are two types of laws: just and unjust… one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” This commitment to disobedience above all, and to equitable access to housing, living wages, and justice for Black Americans in particular, is what we should celebrate when focusing on King’s legacy.

                                                                                Khalid Bhatti 

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