- - Monday, May 22, 2023

As the share of American workers in labor unions declines – despite some high-profile unionizing successes – and as income inequality worsens, one wonders if the country will undergo a national reckoning on class as it has with regard to race. At a time when Americans are at odds over the role of race and slavery in national origins, there’s relative silence when it comes to class issues.

This problem extends to popular remembrances of one of the greatest civil rights leaders in U.S. history, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His crusade to end racism and legal segregation – immortalized in his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 – overshadows other aspects of his philosophy and legacy, namely a sharp critique of capitalism and militarism.

King considered himself a democratic socialist. He viewed systemic poverty as a moral crime, and he campaigned for a universal basic income, the redistribution of wealth, and collective bargaining rights. Much of what King said about capitalism would get him called a “socialist” today – and not as a compliment.

In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Thomas Jackson discusses the importance of MLK’s economic outlook in his overall civil rights agenda.

“He tends to be frozen in the political culture as a Southern civil rights leader arguing for fairness and non-discrimination. His associates ever since have been trying to point out that he was as concerned with ending class inequality and war as he was with ending racism,” said Mr. Jackson, the author of “From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice.”

SEE ALSO: History As It Happens: The crisis of American capitalism

King’s negative views of American capitalism didn’t develop late in his public career. He expressed them from the beginning. In a sermon during the 1950s, he said, “The misuse of capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one-tenth of 1% of the population controls more than 40% of the wealth. Oh, America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes?”


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