As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. today and the commemorations of his life this coming weekend, I think it is important to recall that King was a radical, a socialist, and an advocate of reparations for African Americans.
King was a radical because he challenged Jim Crow segregation with nonviolent confrontations designed to create a such a crisis that the white power structure had to respond and concede to the power of mass nonviolent action by the Black freedom movement. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he presents his method of nonviolent confrontation designed to create a crisis that opens the door to change, is a statement that I wish activists today would read. It is so relevant today in a time when most activism has been reduced to lobbying, begging, really. That includes the orchestrated civil disobedience actions that pose no threat business as usual – indeed, have become part of business as usual. They are not about exerting power that forces the power structure to concede demands.
King got a lot of criticism from mid-60s Black militants for his nonviolence. But few of them ever showed the physical courage and mental fortitude that King did in putting his body on the line repeatedly in the face of assassination attempts, the bombing of his home, and the constant threats and harassment from white vigilantes and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
King was a socialist his whole adult life. We know this from his love letters to his future wife, Coretta Scott King, in the early 1950s to his statement to SCLC staff in 1966 that “America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
King advocated reparations. It is right there in his speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom often referred to today as the “I Have a Dream” speech. The dream was ad-libbed at the end of his speech after Mahalia Jackson called out to him to “tell them about the dream,” which he had preached before. The written text delivered by King said:
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
King’s “promissory note” of reparations for Black people was cast in universal terms based on a class analysis and a power structure analysis. King and his colleagues who organized the March believed that in order to secure civil and political rights for Black people, the Black freedom movement had to lead a broader movement for universal economic rights. They were confronting a mounting white backlash to Black civil rights the was being mobilized in part by playing on the economic insecurity that white working people faced. The strategy was to build a multiracial working-class movement that would have the power to secure economic human rights for all. A Freedom Budget for All Americans by Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates presents a detailed account of the thinking behind this approach by King, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and other leaders of the movement.
The demands of the March revived President Franklin Roosevelt’s call for an Economic Bill of Rights in his last two State of the Union addresses in 1944 and 1945. King and other civil rights leaders followed up the March with a detailed Freedom Budget in 1966, which they presented to Congress to fulfill those economic rights to jobs, income, housing, and education for all. The war on poverty was lost in the war in Vietnam. While many of his civil rights colleagues ducked on the Vietnam question, King came out against the war and continued to fight for the Economic Bill of Rights with his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. True to form, the Poor People’s Campaign intended to occupy Washington with nonviolent resistance intent of forcing Congress to act. King’s assassination on April 4 was a severe blow to that movement.
The Economic Bill of Rights is not a substitute for reparations for the particular harms that African-Americans suffer. We must continue to push for the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act (H.R. 40, S. 2081). We need both.
When we call today for an Economic Bill of Rights, we are picking up the torch that King was carrying. That is what I am thinking about today on King’s birthday.