The Other, More Socialist MLK

by Mark Wilson

When I went to public school in the United States, we learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. In elementary school, we learned that he had a dream. In high school, we learned that he time in a Birmingham Jail, where he wrote a letter. And then we learned that he was assassinated.

King was killed in 1968, but my education about him stopped around 1965. What did he do for three more years?

A whole lot more than protest Southern racism. Starting in 1965, he publicly opposed the Vietnam War. His remarks went way beyond racism and implicated the U.S. in imperialism. He said that the U.S. was occupying Vietnam as a colonial power. He said that the U.S. was needlessly spending money on the military that it should have been spending on domestic social programs.

Didn’t hear about that in school.

And then, in 1968, he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the Poor People’s Campaign, traveling the country arguing for economic aid for the poorest Americans. In fact, he was in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968 to support a local public works employee strike. Didn’t hear about that, either.

It’s far too Tin Foil Hat to suggest that American schools intentionally minimize King’s involvement in economic equality and Vietnam War protests in order to uphold a predominantly pro-capitalist curriculum. Still, the omission is peculiar: schoolbooks focus on the racial equality movement and omit his significant contribution to the economic equality movement. It could be that racism is roundly accepted as unacceptable, and therefore not polemical, while classism is not. A sojourn over to Fox News tells us that, while no one wants to be a racist, a substantial segment of the country has no problem with using the word “socialist” as though it were an insult. We even had a presidential candidate who honestly and seriously believed that welfare benefits and other entitlements for the lazy, soiled masses were rewards for votes in President Obama’s favor.

A latent classism prevents children from learning that, not only was Martin Luther King, Jr. a crusader for racial equality, but for economic equality, as well. And why not? Both are impediments to success. Even in 2013, though, racism is bad, but despising people because they don’t have access to the same economic opportunities? That’s totally fine. Sometimes it makes for a good political platform. I’m reminded of Malcolm X: “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”