Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 16 April 2008

From Montgomery to Vietnam

The radical life of Martin Luther King Jnr

THIS YEAR marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jnr, who was assassinated on 4 April 1968 while supporting striking Memphis sanitation workers.

Will Soto, Socialist Alternative, USA

Unfortunately, the official commemorations of King often provide us with a 'safe' version of his life and legacy and the history of the civil rights movement. It is now commonplace to hear right-wing politicians quote King to justify attacks on affirmative action or welfare, or to see his image in marketing campaigns by huge corporations like Apple.

Like so many fighters for the oppressed, the ruling class fears and opposes them while they are alive, but following their death an attempt is made to render their legacy harmless through distorting their actual ideas. During his lifetime King inspired millions with his vision that fundamental change in US society was possible.

To J Edgar Hoover's FBI, which viciously harassed King and kept him under constant surveillance, he was the "most dangerous Negro in America." The US establishment especially feared his growing radicalisation in the last years of his life, when he spoke out sharply against the Vietnam war and began to question the capitalist system and even talk about "democratic socialism".

Mass struggle strategy

King's rise to prominence began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. The strategy of mass, nonviolent struggle against Jim Crow [post civil war racist laws], first pursued by King in Montgomery, was in contrast to the traditional strategy pushed by the more moderate leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

The NAACP focused on a legalistic strategy of court cases, fearing mass direct action would alienate their political allies in the Democratic and Republican parties.

Beginning especially in 1960, with the wave of sit-ins challenging segregation at lunch counters across the South, civil rights activists waged a series of heroic struggles aimed at winning desegregation and voting rights for blacks.

Their tactics were often criticised by liberal leaders, who urged them to rely on the government to enact change. King took up these attacks in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. He wrote: "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

King played a major role in organising the mass struggle that shook Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Here, thousands marched to demand an end to segregation in defiance of court injunctions forbidding any protests. They faced down police dogs and fire hoses, enduring brutal beatings and numerous bombings and death threats. 2,500 ended up in jail at one point, including elementary school children as young as six, but their tremendous courage brought widespread sympathy.

Only the fear of the example of Birmingham spreading to other cities, as well as the growing mood of impatience swelling among black people in the North, convinced the Democratic administration of John F Kennedy that some federal civil rights legislation would have to be enacted.

This is in stark contrast to the widespread mythology crediting the Democratic Party for civil rights. Far from leading the struggle for civil rights, the Democratic Party under President Kennedy repeatedly ignored calls for federal intervention to protect civil rights activists.

While King retained hopes in Kennedy and sought to cultivate a working relationship with his administration, he also grew frustrated with its inaction.

The experience of the civil rights movement shows that the key to change is not relying on the capitalist political establishment but rather building mass movements from below.

Vietnam war

King also came into serious conflict with the establishment over the Vietnam war. By 1965 King had turned against the war. He increasingly saw the issues faced by black people as linked to US foreign policy.

The Democratic Party, who started the war and prosecuted it under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, exerted enormous pressure on him to remain a single-issue reformer and not to speak out against the war. Under this pressure, King hesitated to come out publicly.

The Democratic Party was (and is) a cynical party of big business, incapable of taking serious measures to eradicate racism since that would clash with the interests of US capitalism. The Vietnam war was completely against the interests of ordinary black people, who were doing a disproportionate amount of the fighting and dying in a war to maintain colonial oppression.

Black people were increasingly rebelling against the war. King and other civil rights leaders' silence was discrediting them in the black community.

King's genuine commitment to the plight of poor and working class black people eventually forced him to break with the logic of his previous position and come out sharply and publicly against the war in February 1967. Calling the US government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", King became the most prominent American to demand withdrawal from Vietnam.

As soon as King stepped outside of "his issue" to draw the links between US imperialism overseas and the treatment of black people within the US, the corporate media got in line to trash him.

The Washington Post warned him that he had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people." Johnson referred to him as "that goddamned nigger preacher" and told King that his statements on the war "had the same effect on [him] as if he had discovered that King had raped his daughter".

Tackling poverty

In his last years, King increasingly turned his attention to problems of economic injustice and inequality. He saw that the victories won through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had done little to "penetrate the lower depths of Negro deprivation" and that the gains of the movement were "limited mainly to the Negro middle class."

Especially important in this process were his experiences in Northern ghettoes where the problems of working class and poor black people could not be laid at the feet of official legal discrimination. These conditions had fuelled the riots in major cities during the mid-1960s and the growing militancy among a section of the black community.

In his search for a way to win real equality for African Americans, King began to draw the conclusion that a serious battle against poverty and oppression was necessary. Against separatist trends who wrote off all whites, King correctly argued for building a multiracial movement with poor and working class whites.

In 1968 King launched the Poor People's Campaign - a campaign of mass civil disobedience, including blocking traffic and staging sit-ins in Congress, to shut down Washington, DC.

King hoped that the strike by 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers would be the kickoff for the Poor People's Campaign. Tragically, he was gunned down before he could see the campaign through.

The state of the dream

Official Census figures state that in 2006 24.3% of US black people lived in poverty vis--vis 8.2% of whites.

The struggles of the Civil Rights era did lead to important reforms but they did not culminate in fundamental economic change. The continuation of capitalism means that black people will continue to face nightmarish conditions.

As King said in a speech exactly one year before his death, "Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo..." (When Silence Is Betrayal, April 4, 1967).

The real way to honour King's legacy is to devote ourselves to an all-out struggle to eradicate racism, poverty, war, and all forms of oppression. As King was beginning to see towards the end of his life, this means building a movement to abolish capitalism.

King also began to talk about the need for socialism.

In a speech delivered to his staff in 1966, he said: "You can't talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can't talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You're really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry... Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong... with capitalism... There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism."

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 16 April 2008:

'We're striking against low pay'

Birmingham strike

Editorial: 24 April strikes: step forward in pay battle

Unison witch-hunt

Unison witch-hunt: Defend 'the four'

Stop the witch hunts!

National Shop Stewards Network

Workplace news and analysis

Re-elect a fighting PCS leadership

News in brief

Global food crisis

Global food prices: anger erupts in mass protests

How the other 0.01% live

Socialist Party election campaign

Elections 2008

Health campaigners fight council cuts

Standing up for socialism: candidate list

Campaign for a New Workers Party - conference 2008

Socialist Party feature

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill: why all the controversy?

Socialist Party news and views

Housing crisis: Britain's house of cards

Tax attack hits low paid workers

Water 'regulators' hide real prices

International socialist news and analysis

Rising class struggles across Europe

Italian election: new Berlusconi victory will provoke mass opposition

France 1968: 10 million workers occupied factories

France 1968: month of revolution by Clare Doyle

The radical life of Martin Luther King

Socialist Students

Portsmouth Activists Academy day of debate


Home   |   The Socialist 16 April 2008   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate  

Related links:

Civil rights:

triangleTV review: Abortion on Trial - hard-hitting look at impact of 1967 act

triangleInternational Women's Day: taking action against capitalist oppression

triangleHow black women fought racism and sexism at Nasa

triangleThe radical life of Paul Robeson

triangleFighting racism today


triangleComprehensive account of bloody conflict

trianglePete Seeger - Sound of US protest movement

triangleTV review: Vietnam's 'children of Agent Orange'


triangleA world in crisis, ripe for revolution

triangleCaerphilly Socialist Party: Are we heading for an era of war?

triangleKurdish referendum declared illegal


triangleTower Hamlets Socialist Party: Organising for socialist change

triangleThe "club no-one wants to be part of" - march by families of those killed in police custody


triangleTrump's incendiary Jerusalem statement reignites Israeli-Palestinian conflict


triangleThem & Us

Reports and campaigns

Reports and campaigns


Waltham Forest

Stop the rotten redevelopment plan, demand residents



Six months on - still no justice for Grenfell



Movement growing against fracking giant Ineos



Totnes MP uses coffin controversy to distract from brutal NHS cuts



Tory plan to hold dinner at coal mining museum defeated



Bradford campaign to save children's services launched


South London

South London health bosses' cover-up



Unite day of action against blacklisting



Brighton victory



Newham anti-academies strikes


Tamil Solidarity

Tamil Solidarity and Refugee Rights activists meeting



Support the Crossrail Woolwich walkout



Unite protest against blacklisting



Anti-DOO lobby of Liverpool's transport committee


Donald Trump

Mobilise to stop bigoted billionaire Donald Trump's state visit to Britain

triangleMore Reports and campaigns articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party

triangle14 Dec Stop the rotten redevelopment plan, demand residents

triangle13 Dec Six months on - still no justice for Grenfell

triangle13 Dec Movement growing against fracking giant Ineos

triangle13 Dec Totnes MP uses coffin controversy to distract from brutal NHS cuts

triangle13 Dec Trump's incendiary Jerusalem statement reignites Israeli-Palestinian...

triangle13 Dec Labour 'purge' furore really just democracy

EU parliament, Strasbourg

triangle13 Dec Brexit deal no solution to Tory rifts

More ...

triangle18 Dec Leeds Socialist Party: Religion and Socialism

triangle19 Dec Bristol North Socialist Party: Christmas social

triangle21 Dec Wakefield Socialist Party: Socialists and the National Question

triangle6 Jan Socialist Party national women's meeting

More ...

Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



December 2017

November 2017

October 2017

September 2017

August 2017

July 2017

June 2017

May 2017

April 2017

March 2017

February 2017

January 2017





















Platform setting: = No platform choice