Martin Luther King Jr. is typically remembered as a civil rights leader of profound moral conscience, the American icon who led the fight against Jim Crow segregation. 

This is the MLK of PBS documentaries and Hollywood movies. It’s the “I Have a Dream” version that even Republicans love.

But we shouldn’t allow it to substitute for historical reality. 

The truth is King was not a popular figure in his day. Right before he was assassinated in 1968, King had a public disapproval rating of 75 percent, and he was denounced as “extremist” and “dangerous” by the federal government.

White racism was obviously a factor here, but it wasn’t the only factor. Animosity toward King was also a consequence of his political views, namely, his opposition to the Vietnam War and what King called the interconnected “evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism.”

This King was (and remains) “dangerous,” a real challenge to American ideology. It’s also the King that gets whitewashed 50 years later on his national holiday.

We’d do well to remember King’s radical legacy at a time of historic inequality and civil unrest: after a summer of anti-racist demonstrations against police killings of black people followed by a double standard for white rioters who storm the Capitol and get to take selfies with police.

As we enter the 20th year of America’s longest running war (about which most Americans have forgotten), the “evils” of militarism are still at work. Congress has approved a $740 billion defense budget (the largest ever), doling out over $23,000 a second to the military.

Meanwhile, one in three Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, 10 million are unemployed and 92 million are uninsured or underinsured during worst public health crisis in our lifetime — a byproduct of living in the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee universal healthcare to its citizens.

These numbers are inflected by racial disparities: Police shoot and kill black people at twice the rate of white people and African Americans are more likely to be poor, unemployed, and without health insurance compared to whites.

But as King knew, racial disparities are only partly explained by hundreds of years of racism, slavery and Jim Crow; they’re also reinforced by capitalism, a system grounded in economic exploitation.

Which is why, already in 1952, King wrote, “capitalism has outlived its usefulness.” And in a 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.” 

What King knew then (and what many of us can learn from him now) is that you can’t separate the problems of racism and capitalism. If you want to achieve social justice, you have to have economic justice; you have to connect racial inequality to economic inequality.

As King told the SCLC in 1967: “We can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power…We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together … you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others.”

A year earlier, King wrote the Forward to the “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, co-written by A Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. In that document, Randolph and Rustin (the organizers behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—the “jobs and freedom” part is usually left out) put forward “a call to those who have grown weary of slogans and gestures.” 

“The tragedy,” they wrote, “is that the workings of our economy so often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other at the bottom of society.” Their antidote was a concrete proposal to achieve economic justice “for all Americans” based on redistributive policies like full employment, basic income, universal healthcare, housing and education. 

By contrast, contemporary liberalism has largely abandoned the fight for economic equality in favor of technical reforms, mentoring programs, and antidiscrimination measures. It seems more interested in “calling out” racism than fighting for universal healthcare.

Of course, calling out racism is a good thing. But what about capitalism? What about economic inequality? Are we willing to follow King, Randolph and Rustin here?

Are we willing to acknowledge that fundamental problems of inequality cannot be solved by diversity programs, racial bias training or having better role models? They can only be solved, as King said, by “redistributing economic and political power” from the rich to the rest.

If we’re not willing to do that, we’re not staying true to King’s legacy.

Joe Tompkins is a Meadville resident and associate professor at Allegheny College. His research focuses on the public discourse around inequality.

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