Remembering what MLK Jr. really stood for

MLK was a radical anti-racist, anti-war socialist

In Matt Colleran’s latest column, “What the left gets wrong on race,” Colleran makes many preposterous claims, including several non-sequiturs about abortion. But the most absurd portion of his column comes at the end, when he denies the existence of institutional racism, argues that our country is a post-racial society, and closes with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. Colleran states that “As Martin Luther King said, hopefully, one day, people ‘will be judged not for the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’”

Beyond the fact that Colleran left out the “Jr.” in King’s name, anyone who has actually read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech knows that is not what he was saying at all. Dr King said that “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their characters.”

The one-dimensional manner in which Colleran and so many others portray Dr. King is problematic in more ways than one. It’s important that we remember the multidimensional man King really was and his massive contributions to civil rights, especially considering the timing of this piece during Black History Month. Martin Luther King Jr. was not making this assertion to exonerate White guilt. He was saying that he dreamed of a world where his children would be free of institutional racism, and could live a life on equal footing as their White counterparts.

King’s dream remains unrealized. The shackles of institutional racism still remain today. Studies have shown that Black kindergarteners are three times more likely to be suspended than their White counterparts. When applying for a mortgage, studies find that simply being Black lowers one’s credit score by 71 points. Though Black Americans use marijuana at roughly equal rates than White Americans, Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Black Americans also make up 35 percent of those arrested, 55 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession.  It is clear that a system exists in our country in which the cards are stacked against Black Americans. At least, it is clear to those who have actual experiences with institutional racism.

But perhaps more problematic is Colleran’s white-washing of Martin Luther King Jr. Too many times, we are presented a sanitized image of Martin Luther King Jr. We are presented a man who refused to go on a bus a few times and ended racism.Colleran, in his Hustler biography, describes himself as a supporter of “free markets, traditional values and a strong national defense.” These are precisely the values that King stood against. Martin Luther King Jr. was not only an advocate for racial justice, but also an advocate for economic justice and an end to American imperialism.

Anyone who has studied King’s life can attest to the fact that he was an avowed critic of capitalism. He was murdered after speaking in Memphis in support of sanitation workers who were advocating for a living minimum wage and improved working conditions.

Two weeks before his assassination, Reverend King gave a sermon at a Memphis church in support of the sanitation workers. In this speech, he stated, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”

Beyond being a critic of the capitalist system, Martin Luther King Jr also advocated for socialism. In a speech to the Negro American Labor Council in 1961, Dr King said, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”

King also spoke of “fighting a three-headed demon” which consisted of “racism, militarism, and capitalism.” In a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Board in 1967, King stated that “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

King’s critiques of American militarism were just as blistering as his critiques of capitalism. He referred to the U.S. military as “the greatest purveyor of violence today.” He also spoke out against the Vietnam War, accusing the United States military of falling victim to the “deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for too long.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was also an avid opponent of apartheid in South Africa, supporting economic boycotts and sanctions. He told his supporters to “Urge your Government to support economic sanctions; write to your Mission to the United Nations urging adoption of a resolution calling for international isolation of South Africa; don’t trade or invest in South Africa; don’t buy South Africa’s products.”

Although a proponent of nonviolence, King stated that he “understood” the violence used by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, saying that “in that situation, people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods (i.e. violence).”

King blamed the situation of South African apartheid on the U.S. government’s blind support for the apartheid government, both through military aid and the use of its veto power at the United Nations to shield apartheid South Africa from criticism.

King stated that “the tragedy of South Africa is virtually made possible by the economic policies of the United States and Great Britain, two countries which profess to be the moral bastions of our Western world.” He later asserted that “If the United Kingdom and the United States decided tomorrow morning not to buy South African goods, not to buy South African gold, to put an embargo on oil; if our investors and capitalists would withdraw their support for that racial tyranny, then apartheid would be brought to an end.”

If Martin Luther King Jr. were around today, he would not only be speaking out about structural racism in the United States. As an avowed critic of capitalism, King would be speaking out against income inequality in the U.S.: a society in which the top 1 percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. As an avowed critic of militarism, King would condemn the fact that the United States government spends more money on its military than the next 10 countries combined. He would be critical of American drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, as well as American military aid to repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and apartheid Israel.

Too many times, we are presented a sanitized image of Martin Luther King Jr. We are presented a man who refused to go on a bus a few times and ended racism. It is critical that we fight back against this misrepresentation of King as opposed to perpetuating it. The Martin Luther King Jr. Myth that Matt Colleran constructed is counterintuitive to Dr King’s legacy. It is critical that we remember the anti-racist, anti-militarist, and anti-capitalist figure he was. It is critical that we remember the radical Martin Luther King Jr. Upon understanding the principles which he stood for. It is critical that we too continue in his legacy by fighting the three-headed demon of racism, militarism and capitalism walking in our midst today.


  1. I don’t think anyone really knows what Martin Luther King, Jr. would think about the world today. It’s a mug’s game trying to argue about it.

    The idea that there is “institutional racism” is hard to accept. For example, you state that black children are suspended from school more frequently than white children. What does that prove? To me, it proves that more black children behave badly enough to be suspended. Having attended and taught in inner-city schools I find that proposition much more likely than that the “institution” is trying to keep black students from succeeding.

    You also suggest that blacks get lower credit scores just for being black. But how would FICO know a person is black? I’m guessing the scores are done by computer and race doesn’t enter into it. Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker explained that if blacks had to have better credit than whites to get loans that blacks would show lower levels of default on their loans. Since they don’t have lower levels of default, lenders must not be discriminating against them.

    You argue that blacks are convicted more often for drug possession. This could be the result of plea bargaining more serious drug-related offenses down to possession. Black criminality is so much higher (about 7 times higher) than white criminality for pretty much every kind of crime, so it’s not surprising that blacks are convicted for this crime more often as well.

    I can believe that there are individuals who discriminate against blacks. Maybe there are a lot of them. But institutions don’t do anything, only people do. You would have to show me actual practices and conspiracies to make life tough for honest, hard-working black people for the claim of “institutional racism” to make any sense.

  2. Man with the Axe:

    “Institutional racism? Nah, I don’t buy it. Give me more evidence.”

    What news are you reading?

    Next time you want to make an unfounded argument about how the data lies, and Black children just behave more badly than other children, and Black people commit more crimes (implied- because of something inherent to their being), maybe just don’t. No one asked you to come in and promote the anti-Black agenda during a discussion of MLK’s legacy. Thanks.