When partners first date, it’s often the case they seek to put their best foot forward. The comedian Chris Rock maintains that by doing this, we reveal quite a bit about who we are, how we view ourselves, and what commitments matter most to us. When Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott first began to date in Boston, their conversations were largely oriented around literature, politics, and the economy.
In a 1952 note addressed to Coretta Scott, King argues that “capitalism has outlived its usefulness” and that he has always been more socialistic in his economic theory than capitalistic. In 1953 on a radio broadcast from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King offers a notable prayer contained in the Lewis Baldwin edited volume of King’s prayers. King prays, “in the name and spirit of Jesus” that the church would “work with renewed vigor for a warless world, for a better distribution of wealth, and for a brotherhood that transcends race or color.”
This sampling of King’s correspondence and prayers, in addition to the work of scholars like Andrew J. Douglas and Jared A. Loggins research on King’s material critique of racial capitalism, illustrate that King enters not only public ministry but also pastoral ministry with an anti-capitalist thread that holds together his quilted vision of a “beloved community.” King’s commitments evolve over time as they are informed by his reading, movement work, travel, and inner circle. Nevertheless, King puts his best anti-capitalist foot forward from the beginning.
Why is it worthwhile to name King’s anti-capitalist commitments as a faith leader? Firstly, intellectual integrity demands that we take people on their own terms and in their own words. King’s theological, rhetorical, and written correspondence suggests a deep suspicion of private property, inhumane housing, and an abiding concern for Black folks. King, like many Black Americans, was also concerned with what writer and activist Michael Harrington referred to in 1962 as “the other America.” King referred to these people as the ones living on a “lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Secondly, pastors, laity, and faith leaders who believe that the power of the gospel requires a confrontation with what the late New Testament scholar Walter Wink refers to as the “principalities and powers,” look to King for inspiration on how to fight against the exploitation that is synonymous with capitalism.
Additionally, by explicitly recognizing King’s anti-capitalism, we are forced to undo what womanist ethicist Emilie M. Townes calls the “cultural production of evil,” a process that misremembers King as an American exceptionalist who sought to redeem the soul of the nation by proposing a few tweaks and modifications, rather than pushing for wholesale, systemic change. In reality, this icon of U.S. public life was a harsh critic of American exceptionalism and an even harsher critic of America’s most sacred cow: the U.S. economy.
As a staunch critic of the U.S. and its capitalist economy, King directly contradicts the decontextualized images that would flatten him and the civil rights movement into a single “I Have A Dream” speech. This decontextualization disfigures both King’s theological commitments and the freedom faith of Prathia Hall who inspired the “dream” segment of the speech. King’s full body of work — from his correspondence and prayers, to his sermons and writings — envisions a “person-oriented society” that values human rights over private property rights, while deeply critiquing economic exploitation and preventable conditions of poverty in the wealthiest nation to ever exist.
Despite the evidence that we have which clearly shows that King was a critic of both the U.S. and capitalism, we still see bad faith portrayals of King as politicians appeal to his legacy to support causes that he would not champion — such as criminalizing protest or generically praising him as an embodiment of America’s founding ideals.
In addition to addressing bad faith misrepresentations of King, it’s also important to charitably address inadvertent distortions of King’s life, legacy, and letters. What I have in mind are invocations of King that sever his antiwar activism and commitment to voting rights from his commitment to a reconstructed economic order. King’s vision of beloved community is not simply a churchy way to call for liberal democracy — fair voting, a free press, the right to assemble and protest, or a generous welfare state to supplant the fiscal austerity that emerged following his assassination. What King called for was a radical revolution of values that confronts the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and poverty which are built into the economic foundations of the United States’ liberal democracy.
Princeton African American studies professor Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor notes that King told The New York Times that he was engaged “in a kind of class struggle” which further confirms that King cannot be presented as a great American marching for a kinder, gentler free-market economy. King, along with many others in the Black social gospel tradition that shaped him, embodied a socialist commitment that held together militant nonviolent protest against racial injustice and a deep vision of participatory democracy. This vision emerged from his theological and philosophical conviction that all of humanity is sacred.
These are the reasons I view King’s faith and radical anti-capitalist politics as being inherently related. As a board member of the Institute for Christian Socialism and the former executive director of the Drum Major Institute, an organization co-founded by King and his lawyer, Harry H. Wachtel, I feel a personal commitment to ensuring that the practical implications of King’s theopolitical commitments are holistically carried forward.
In All Labor Has Dignity, labor historian Michael Honey highlights some of the ways the practical implications of King’s theopolitical commitments dovetail with anti-capitalist activism. Throughout his life, King argued a mixture of pragmatic points regarding a labor-religion-civil rights alliance. In a 1961 speech to the Detroit United Automobile Workers Union, King explained that “it is axiomatic that what labor needs, Negroes need, and simple logic therefore puts us side by side in the struggle for all elements in the decent standard of living.” Toward the end of King’s life, he had become unmistakably vocal in labor organizing. In 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to march with Black sanitation workers who were attempting to unionize in an effort to improve work conditions. The day after the march, April 4, 1968, King was assassinated.
In order to understand King's life and legacy, it is critical that his activism be understood in the context of his call as a minister. In 1956 a sermon titled, “Paul's Letter to American Christians,” King called for a “better distribution of wealth.” He also asserted that “God never intended one people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.” Holistically interpreting King’s theological work as a pastor, public theologian, and faith leader requires grounding his anti-capitalism in his self-identification as a “minister of the Christian gospel.”
Today, King’s legacy as a pastor-theologian and activist-minister summons us to transition from a capitalist economy into a socialist economy. This economy values civil liberty, political freedoms, and a strongly circumscribed market with constraints imposed not only by law and public opinion, but more fundamentally by social ownership, worker self-organization, and a coalition of people from varying faiths and consciences who believe in the beloved community.
As we strive to build interracial, intercultural, and international alliances capable of turning the page on capitalism, vestiges of colonialism, and the sedimented legacies of patriarchy, King’s legacy belongs to all of us. That’s not to say King is above criticism. Indeed, as Shatema Threadcraft and Brandon Terry note, it is important to “think with King against King.” But it is equally important to remember that King’s legacy does not belong to interpreters who seek to redact or selectively interpret his life and words for purposes that are incongruent with the life he actually led.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, direct service and personal moments of reflection have their place, but to truly value King’s theological and ethical vision, let us organize, preach, vote, write, and agitate in a way that places anti-capitalism at the center of the beloved community. Let us place the construction of a fully decolonized world house at the center of our global neighborhood — one where unequal trade relations, enormous loan repayment burdens, and other material harms facing formerly colonized nations are abolished. The enormity of the odds may be steep, the challenges before us formidable, but God yet calls us “to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”