Martin Luther King Jr. has come to be revered as a hero who led a nonviolent struggle to reform and redeem the United States. His birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. Tributes are paid to him on his death anniversary each April, and his legacy is honored in multiple ways.
But from my perspective as a historian of religion and civil rights, the true radicalism of his thought remains underappreciated. The “civil saint” portrayed nowadays was, by the end of his life, a social and economic radical, who argued forcefully for the necessity of economic justice in the pursuit of racial equality.
Three particular works from 1957 to 1967 illustrate how King’s political thought evolved from a hopeful reformer to a radical critic.
For much of the 1950s, King believed that white southern ministers could provide moral leadership. He thought the white racists of the South could be countered by the ministers who took a stand for equality. At the time, his concern with economic justice was a secondary theme in his addresses and political advocacy.
Speaking at Vanderbilt University in 1957, he professed his belief that “there is in the white South more open-minded moderates than appears on the surface.” He urged them to lead the region through its necessary transition to equal treatment for black citizens. He reassured all that the aim of the movement was not to “defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
King had hope for this vision. He had worked with white liberals such as Myles Horton, the leader of a center in Tennessee for training labor and civil rights organizers. King had developed friendships and crucial alliances with white supporters in other parts of the country as well. His vision was for the fulfillment of basic American ideals of liberty and equality.
By the early 1960s, at the peak of the civil rights movement, King’s views had evolved significantly. In early 1963, King came to Birmingham to lead a campaign for civil rights in a city known for its history of racial violence.
During the Birmingham campaign, in April 1963, he issued a masterful public letter explaining the motivations behind his crusade. It stands in striking contrast with his hopeful 1957 sermon.
His “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” responded to a newspaper advertisement from eight local clergymen urging King to allow the city government to enact gradual changes.
In a stark change from his earlier views, King devastatingly targeted White moderates willing to settle for “order” over justice. In an oppressive environment, the avoidance of conflict might appear to be “order,” but in fact supported the denial of basic citizenship rights, he noted.
“We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote. He argued how oppressors never voluntarily gave up freedom to the oppressed – it always had to be demanded by “extremists for justice.”
He wrote how he was “gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” They were, he said, a greater enemy to racial justice than were members of the White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and other White racist radicals.
By 1967, King’s philosophy emphasized economic justice as essential to equality. And he made clear connections between American violence abroad in Vietnam and American social inequality at home.
Exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, King stood at one of the best-known pulpits in the nation, at Riverside Church in New York. There, he explained how he had come to connect the struggle for civil rights with the fight for economic justice and the early protests against the Vietnam War.
“Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over.”