The common view of Martin Luther King is not a complete one

Was MLK just a Civil Rights leader?

Every third Monday of the month of January we take time to acknowledge, honor and remember the life and career of Martin Luther King Jr. To many, this means remembering King as a strong opponent of racial discrimination and advocate of equal rights for African Americans. While this vision of King is true and worthy of our enduring admiration, it fails in producing the full image of a great man. 

There is another, more radical and controversial side of King which I believe America could gain from. I recently had the pleasure of learning quite a bit about this other side of King in Dr. Michael Honey’s labor history class.

Much like how the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013 exploded into the Black Lives Matter movement today, the killing of Emmet Till in 1955 proved to be the spark of the civil rights movement which King would eventually give his life for. 

Although King disavowed Communism, he strongly criticized American capitalism while advocating the social gospel: a set of ideals which had similarities to Marxism but were rooted in the teachings of Christianity rather than Marx. 

“There is something wrong with a situation that will take the necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes,” became an iconic mantra of Kings when he advocated the social gospel.

King recognized not only the threat of resurgent capitalist influence but that unions and the civil rights movement must realign their efforts to face the threat as well. King would take his social gospel message and his civil rights unionism across the country and around the world.

Throughout his career, King was the subject of threats, violence, bombings, FBI blackmailing, false arrests and imprisonments. As he preached the coming of a Promised Land, where America would truly realize the equality and economic freedom it professed, King began to say he would not live to see its coming. Like so many of King’s words, these too would prove prophetic. 

It is impossible to truly calculate the effect that King’s efforts and sacrifice had on unionism and social justice from the 1960s on, yet both the 1960s and 70s were a time of dramatic social activism and solidarity which challenged the inequalities of capitalism, war, and racism like never before. However, one thing is clear, King’s Promised Land has not been realized and won’t be anytime soon.

Today, American society tends to focus on the aspects of King that can be slapped on a canvas bag and sold at Whole Foods for $4.99 while ignoring or forgetting the aspects of King which challenged us, criticized us, and demanded better from us. 

For the complete message of King is one which challenges the founding principles of our democracy. The Founding Father’s original dream of freedom, liberty and equality was marred by the hypocrisy of slavery. The question of who deserved freedom remained a debate which has permeated our social psyche and defined the internal struggles of our shared history, in our courts, in our homes, on our streets and across bloodstained battlefields.

Since the role of race in these struggles has been such a crucial center piece throughout their history, race has naturally taken center stage of the discussion, and what we remember King to be. Yet when stripped down to its simplest form, the question of equality is not merely one of race or religion or gender but of universal human dignity.

Without adequate housing, a worker has no dignity. Without a safe and clean workplace, a worker has no dignity. Without security from war and prejudice, a worker has no dignity. Without food on the table, safe schools for their children, and medical care for their family, a worker has no dignity. 

King’s Promised Land was not a communist utopia where nobody would be rich, and nobody would be poor, but an America which valued the human right to basic dignity as much as it valued the personal enrichment of the elite. I think all one has to do is take one look at the COVID-19 era worker to see that this dream is far from being realized.

Racial equality may have been a goal of King’s social gospel, but the philosophy behind the goal was not limited to one group of people. To remember King as only a civil rights leader is to remember only a part of him. 

King’s stalwart defense of the common man stands as one of the greatest campaigns for true equality in our nation’s history. His vision of the Promised Land and the social gospel deserve the same recognition as any iconic speech he gave. This message was not just a declaration of hope but a call to action for all of us. If we allow ourselves to forget it, we will never realize it.

If anyone would like to learn more about King and the social gospel, I could not recommend Dr. Honey’s labor history course enough.