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What Did Martin Luther King Really Believe?

What Did Martin Luther King Really Believe?

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference released a memorial poster of MLK after his death in April 1968. Library of Congress

This month we celebrate another birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights hero who was gunned down in Memphis in April 1968 at the age of 39. Since King’s death, historians and others across the political spectrum have hotly contested the meaning of his legacy. Who’s right?

Oddly enough, until recently it has been conservatives who have most vocally laid claim to King’s intellectual and political bequest. William Bradford Reynolds, who served as Ronald Reagan’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, and who waged a long battle against affirmative action, claimed that “the initial affirmative action message of racial unification—so eloquently delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . was effectively drowned out by the all too persistent drumbeat of racial polarization that accompanied the affirmative action preferences of the 1970s into 1980s.” Ward Connerly, the conservative black businessman who spearheaded California’s Proposition 209, barring affirmative action, announced that his group was “going to fight to get the nation back on the journey that Dr. King laid out.”

In their effort to lay claim to King, much as generations of politicians strove to “get right with Lincoln,” conservatives have presented an ahistorical portrait of him as an absolutist on the question of race and public policy. By their estimation, King’s “I have a dream” speech should be taken literally: He espoused a civic order where governments made no distinctions between citizens based on race. Hence he would have opposed compensatory set-asides, quotas, or timelines and targets aimed at redistributing jobs and economic resources.

Since King’s death, historians and others across the political spectrum have hotly contested the meaning of his legacy. Who’s right?

The problem with this version of history is that it ignores much of what King said. In his book Why We Can’t Wait, he wrote that “no amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. . . . The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. . . . I am proposing, therefore, that, just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.”

Critically, he envisioned these broad-based, public-sector compensatory programs as targeting both African-Americans and poor whites, whom he labeled the “derivative victims” of slavery and Jim Crow. In this regard he leaned on the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, who famously observed that poor and working-class whites gained nothing from Jim Crow but the psychological “wages of whiteness.” In return for the psychological boost that “whiteness” gave them, poor whites—millions of them, from slavery times through the modern age—surrendered political and economic power to their elite counterparts. King might well have been thinking of the radical white writer Lillian Smith’s 1943 parable, “Two Men and a Bargain,” in which “Once a time, down South, Mr.

Rich White made a bargain with Mr. Poor White. . . . You boss the nigger, and I’ll boss the money.” According to Smith, they “segregated southern money from Mr. Poor White and they . . . segregated the Negro from everything.”

Smith’s reasoning—and King’s—was well-founded. Jim Crow divided white and black labor against each other, stunting the growth of unions, labor parties, and liberal political coalitions. Jim Crow thus drove down wages across the board and secured a political system (chiefly in the American South) where taxes were regressive, public services were minimal, and political participation was sharply limited. Remember that on the eve of World War II, poll taxes in eight Southern states disenfranchised as many as 64 percent of white citizens and virtually all eligible black voters. It’s hard to say what most working-class whites got from Jim Crow other than the satisfaction that they weren’t black.

As the 1960s wore on, King came to view social problems more through the lens of class and less through the lens of race. In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote, “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.” Yet he was never so naive or ahistorical as to divorce race and class entirely, and in designing solutions to the inequities that plagued American society, he consciously singled out all African-Americans (and some whites too) as especially deserving of compensatory justice.

If conservatives have been too quick to claim King as their own, liberals also forget that while the civil rights leader shared many of their policy commitments—an end to the war in southeast Asia, anti-poverty legislation, civil rights statutes, respect for the United Nations and other international bodies—his fundamental understanding of human nature was not, in fact, conventionally liberal. In his recent book, A Stone of Hope : Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the historian David Chappell shows that King’s rearing in the neo-fundamentalist black church conditioned him to believe in original sin. Religious and political liberals from Washington Gladden to John Dewey had long accepted as an article of faith the progressive belief in humankind’s perfectibility. Theirs was a social theology that rejected the old evangelical emphasis on otherworldly salvation and endeavored to create “heaven on earth” through good works and civic action. King, on the other hand, was reared in a religious tradition that stressed the sinful nature of mankind and the otherworldly imperative of preparing individual souls for salvation.

As an undergraduate and graduate student, King was drawn to the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose pessimistic assessment of human nature—Niebuhr believed that humans, when acting in concert, were naturally prone to immorality—also broke sharply with liberal social gospel. Studying in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the early years of the Cold War, King was attracted to Niebuhr’s call for political coercion in the service of combating injustice. Niebuhr’s theology, and by extension King’s, reflected a disillusionment with humankind’s recent descent into mass violence.

In this sense, living in the shadow of Nazism, Stalinism, and McCarthyism, neither Niebuhr nor King shared the faith of most mainstream liberals in the gradual improvement of humankind and human society. Their pessimism about human nature was much more in line with the social thought of mid-twentieth-century conservatives. Little wonder that, in his first major speech as a civil rights leader, King told a gathering of black bus boycotters in Montgomery, Alabama, “The Almighty God himself is not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, ‘I love you, Israel.’ He’s also the God that stands up before the nations and said, ‘Be still and know that I am God, that if you don’t obey me, I will break the backbone of your power and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships.’”

So what to make of Martin Luther King, Jr., on his seventy-eighth birthday and his national holiday? He was a deep and profound political thinker, constantly in flux. His politics was radical, but his ideology was truly complex.

—Joshua Zeitz is a contributing editor of American Heritage magazine and the author of Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made Modern America (Crown).

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