Martin Luther King Jr. is perhaps the one man who liberals and conservatives alike both claim as one of their own. Liberals argue he stood for race-conscious social justice, while conservatives argue he stood for their idea of a colorblind society.
In order to determine whether King was actually a liberal or a conservative, it makes sense to turn to his words. For if King was a liberal, than he would’ve promoted liberal ideas and policies whilst eschewing conservative ideas and policies. Conversely, if King was a conservative, than he would’ve promoted conservative ideas and policies whilst eschewing liberal ideas and policies.
Herewith are ten arguments King made during the final ten years of his life between 1958 and 1968. Your humble examiner is not going to tell you whether the following arguments are liberal or conservative. You may discern that for yourself.
1. From an essay he wrote for Fellowship magazine in September 1958:
But in spite of the shortcomings of his analysis, Marx had raised some basic questions. I was deeply concerned from my early teen days about the gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, and my reading of Marx made me ever more conscious of this gulf. Although modern American capitalism had greatly reduced the gap through social reforms, there was still need for a better distribution of wealth. Moreover, Marx had revealed the danger of the profit motive as the sole basis of an economic system: capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity -- thus capitalism can lead to a practical materialism that is as pernicious as the materialism taught by communism.
My reading of Marx also convinced me that truth is found neither in Marxism nor in traditional capitalism. Each represents a partial truth. Historically capitalism failed to see the truth in collective enterprise, and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise. Nineteenth century capitalism failed to see that life is social and Marxism failed and still fails to see that life is individual and personal. The Kingdom of God is neither the thesis of individual enterprise nor the antithesis of collective enterprise, but a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both.
2. From a speech delivered to the AFL-CIO in 1961:
Yes, before the victory is won, some will be misunderstood. Some will be dismissed as dangerous rabble-rousers and agitators. Some will be called reds and Communists merely because they believe in economic justice and the brotherhood of man. But we shall overcome.
3. From a speech given in Oslo, Norway after Lyndon B. Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election:
Another indication that progress is being made was found in the recent presidential election in the United States. The American people revealed great maturity by overwhelmingly rejecting a presidential candidate who had become identified with extremism, racism, and retrogression. The voters of our nation rendered a telling blow to the radical right. They defeated those elements in our society which seek to pit white against Negro and lead the nation down a dangerous Fascist path.
4. From a January 1965 interview with Playboy in which he was asked, “Whom do you mean by ‘the establishment?,’” King said:
I mean the white leadership -- which I hold as responsible as anyone for the riots, for not removing the conditions that cause them…The Negro is trapped in a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign, caught in a vicious socioeconomic vise. And he is ostracized as is no other minority group in America by the evil of oppressive and constricting prejudice based solely upon his color. A righteous man has no alternative but to resist such an evil system. If he does not have the courage to resist nonviolently, then he runs the risk of a violent emotional explosion. As much as I deplore violence, there is one evil that is worse than violence, and that's cowardice.
5. From a keynote speech delivered a year before his death on August 31, 1967:
We have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifices. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad…the way to end poverty is to end the exploitation of the poor. Insure them a fair share of the government’s services and the nation’s resources. We must recognize that the problems of neither racial nor economic justice can be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.
6. As a bonus to that fifth quote, King said in a Mississippi speech in 1968: “But now, we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars -- and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.”
7. From a speech given in Memphis in 1968:
And I come by here to say that America too is going to hell, if we don't use her wealth... If America does not use her vast resources to end poverty .. make it possible for all of God's children to have the basis.. basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.
8. From the last speech he ever gave to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference:
We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. Now, early in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation, as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's ability and talents. And, in the thinking of that day, the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber. We've come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that the dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. Today the poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our consciences by being branded as inferior or incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.
9. Also from his last speech to the SCLC:
I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about "Where do we go from here," that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask to the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?" These are questions that must be asked.
Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truth of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.
10. From a news article published right after his death in 1968:
We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work. Some people are too young, some are too old, some are physically disabled, and yet in order to live, they need income. It would mean creating certain public-service jobs, but that could be done in a few weeks. A program that would really deal with jobs could minimize -- I don't say stop -- the number of riots that could take place this summer.
In any event, we will not have been the ones who will have failed. We will place the problems of the poor at the seat of government of the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind. If that power refuses to acknowledge its debt to the poor, it would have failed to live up to its promise to insure "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to its citizens."
It must be noted that every single one of these quotes except for the third and fifth ones comes from an August 25, 2010 Media Matters article. The third and fifth quotes were found courtesy of James Edwards, the paleoconservative host of the Political Cesspool radio program.
Any hyperlinks I provided for King’s quotes comes from either MMFA or Edwards, and as you can see for yourself in the MMFA article, the rest come from the book, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. The one exception is quote No.6, which as MMFA pointed out, comes from the book, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America.
It must also be noted that while Media Matters has a notorious history for making stuff up, in this case they were just reporting what King himself said. So unless one is willing to accuse either MMFA or the sources they site of putting words in King’s mouth, then it is a matter of fact that King said what he said in these ten quotes.
King was either a liberal or a conservative, but he cannot be both. As Matthew 6:24 says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Let these ten quotes demonstrate exactly what King loved and what King hated.
And if you find yourself uncomfortable with King’s words, perhaps wondering to yourself, “did he really say all that?,” then remember the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson: “There is not a truth existing which I fear...or would wish unknown to the whole world.”