Martin Luther King Jr. rejected Capitalism

Bryan Renbaum has written an article for Baltimore Post-Examiner proposing that the movie Selma illustrates differences between MLK and today’s Civil Rights Leaders. I encourage readers to take a look at it and then ask themselves a simple question: what have I learned about the movie?

It’s a useful question, because it draws our attention to one that’s much more important: what basis does Renbaum’s understanding of Martin Luther King Jr. have in actual history? The article begins with a cursory summary of Selma’s plot – nothing more than you would find in a commercial – and then the film is instantly forgotten, never to be mentioned again.

Instead, the article devolves into a mostly unrelated laundry list of Republican talking points about affirmative action, Ferguson, and Capitalism – all clumsily tacked to a caricature of King that resembles neither history nor the movie. The omissions are telling, and the errors of fact are even worse.

King and capitalism

A telling example: Renbaum scolds all of the “disingenuous claims suggesting that…even Capitalism itself” is “inherently racist,” insisting that “King’s message was not to tear down American society and its institutions.”

Here is what King actually said:

“After Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”

Here is what King actually said:

“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars… Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it means that we are saying something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

Here is what King actually said:

“I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits…[but] today capitalism has outlived its usefulness…Our economic system is going through a radical change, and certainly this change is needed. I would certainly welcome the day to come when there will be a nationalization of industry.”

One could go on. These are not obscure passages. One cannot look at King’s life with both eyes open and miss his repeated, strident and explicit argument that Capitalism was fully complicit in the oppression of black Americans. King’s hopes for a “nationalization of industry” are if anything well to the left of the modern black leaders that Renbaum criticizes.

King’s legacy

A mistake this egregious and demonstrable should give us pause when Renbaum scolds the black community about “King’s message.” Unfortunately, such mistakes riddle the entire article, which manages to misunderstand King’s ideas about private property, law enforcement, affirmative action, voting rights, and so on.

Here, the politically correct move would be to politely give Renbaum the benefit of a doubt, pretend that these mistakes are just that – mistakes – and ignore the fact that his mistakes always just-so-happen to correspond to the political agenda of the modern Republican party.

But here, Renbaum leaves his critics in a bind: because it is “political correctness,” he insists, that “prevents honest individuals from working together to improve race relations.”

Should we keep pretending that right-wing revisions of Martin Luther King’s history are just innocent mistakes? Or should we throw off “the constraints of political correctness” and have a conversation about more sinister motives? Maybe Capitalists just want to save Capitalism, and don’t really care what King had to say about it either way. Is that too blunt?

6 thoughts on “Martin Luther King Jr. rejected Capitalism

  • Tim Forkes
    January 13, 2015 at 3:08 AM

    Here’s what Dr. King had to say about Malcolm X to Alex Haley in 1964. Doesn’t sound like he despises Malcolm X, just disagrees with him.

    “I met Malcolm X once in Washington, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. He is very articulate, as you say, but I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views—at least insofar as I understand where he now stands. I don’t want to seem to sound self-righteous, or absolutist, or that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. I don’t know how he feels now, but I know that I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our
    problem. And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.”

  • January 13, 2015 at 1:17 AM

    Mr. Woodward’s one-sided attack on my Selma Op-Ed leaves much to be desired. While Dr. King’s views on Capitalism could be debated at length-and subjected to various interpretations-via cherry-picking certain quotes and applying one’s preferred context to them-King would most certainly be disgusted with the likes of Sharpton, Jackson,and Dyson. It is equally ironic that Woodward would post a picture of MLK with Malcolm X-a rabid racist/Anti-Semite-who did nothing but advocate violence until the very end of his life. King initially despised Malcolm, and only allied with him when he had no other choice-and the former had denounced his previous tactics. Additionally, it is hard to imagine Dr. King standing in support of a man shouting: “Burn down the Jew store,” as Sharpton did in 1995-to a mob on 125th street. And what other message can be inferred by Rev. Al’s-“No justice, no peace” slogan other than an invitation to riot? When rioting ensued in the aftermath of the Ferguson decision, Sharpton was nowhere to be found. Would Dr. King approve of looting or attacks on law enforcement personnel? Unlikely. Furthermore, Mr.Jackson and Mr. Dyson-along with Reverend Al-represent the greatest obstacles
    to improved race relations-via promoting victimization-and eschewing any premise
    of personal responsibility to those the claim to represent. Finally, Mr.Woodward’s assertion about my alleged misreading of history is equally disingenuous given that his columns are entirely devoted to championing an economic system that doesn’t work, has never worked, and will never work. If Socialism is the wave of the future, then why is it slowly being discarded in China and Vietnam-in favor of free
    markets? Even the Europeans are beginning to realize that their beloved welfare states are unsustainable.

    • January 13, 2015 at 8:09 AM

      If “King’s views on Capitalism could be debated at length”, then by all means debate them.

      As of now, you have done nothing of the sort. I went to the trouble of presenting direct quotes. Are they cherry-picked? Then demonstrate this. Quote a broader sample of writing by King, and explain how that writing somehow nullifies the plain and explicit meaning of what I’ve presented here. Can my quotes be “interpreted” differently? Then explain how, when King said “I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic,” he actually meant the exact opposite.

      No one, not even yours truly, will argue that King was a Marxist in the ordinary sense of the word. He took issue with several tenets of Marxist theory and was particularly troubled by the prospect of violent revolution. But King openly embraced several of Marx’s insights, and hoped for a future of democratic socialism. And while also appreciating the advantages of Capitalism, he believed that its time had passed.

      If you have evidence to the contrary, stop hiding behind this bluster and present it. I have zero interest in a more wide-ranging discussion if you can neither defend this point nor concede it.

    • January 13, 2015 at 6:15 PM

      So, your point is the normal racist right wing talking points. Understood.

      Just stop trying to change who Dr Martin Luther King Jr was, what he believed in, what he stood for, and all that other stuff. You don’t agree with MLK, stop trying to use him as a shield for your own impotent racism.

    • January 13, 2015 at 8:42 PM

      This article doesn’t even mention Sharpton, Jackson or Dyson. The closest it comes is when he mentions that King’s hope for the “nationalization of industry” is to the left of anything that they’ve called for, which is obviously true and which you didn’t even attempt to contest.

      So why is 75% of your response about them? And most of what is left is just criticizing other articles. Why don’t you address what Carl wrote?

    • Tim Forkes
      January 14, 2015 at 10:47 AM

      Jesse Jackson actually knew Dr. King and marched with him. I doubt King would be disgusted with Jackson. Jackson was with MLK the night he was murdered in Memphis. In the photo Jackson is on King’s immediate right and I believe that is Rev Ralph Abernathy behind King. Not sure who that is to the far left.
      Jesse Jackson took his lead on civil rights from Martin Luther King, Jr.

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