“The Radical King”: A Democratic Socialist

From Cornel West’s Introduction: “The radical King was a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies

By Milt Tambor

When Cornel West came to the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta earlier this year to promote The Radical King, a collection of King’s writings edited and with commentaries by West, I talked with him briefly as he signed the book for me. After I told him about our DSA local, he immediately pointed to the chapter on Norman Thomas entitled “The Bravest Man I Ever Met.” So, I turned first to the Thomas essay, the lead chapter in part four, “Overcoming the Tyranny of Poverty and Hatred.” The remaining readings and speeches are grouped under the headings of “Radical Love,” “Prophetic Vision: Global Analysis and Local Praxis” and “The Revolution of Nonviolent Resistance: Against Empire and White Supremacy.”

West introduces the Thomas essay, an article originally published in 1965, with a statement by Coretta Scott King that startled him. In a conversation with her 20 years ago, Coretta says, “On my first date with Martin I was surprised because I had never met a black socialist before.”  During that same period, in a 1953 letter to Coretta Scott, King writes, “ I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” That would explain King's great admiration for Norman Thomas and his familiarity with the Socialist Party and its history.

King opens the essay by recounting a message he sent to Thomas on the occasion of his 80th birthday just as he was going to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. “I can think of no man who has done more than you to inspire the vision of a society free of injustice and exploitation...Your pursuit of racial and economic democracy at home, and of sanity and peace in the world, has been awesome in scope. It is with deep admiration and indebtedness that I carry the inspiration of your life to Oslo.”

For King, Thomas demonstrated a long-standing dedication to peace and justice by waging six campaigns as the Socialist Party's candidate for president, opposing United States involvement in World War 1, advocating for universal disarmament over a 40-year period, joining with A. Philip Randolph in the fight for fair employment practices, helping end discrimination in the armed forces and walking the picket line to support unions and workers in scores of strikes.King further notes the offer by Thomas to help Morris Hilquit, the Socialist Party candidate in the 1918 New York mayoralty campaign, including his hopes that a new social order  be created and the capitalist system abolished. King then reviews the 1932 Socialist Party platform calling for the socialization of major industries and natural resources while proposing specific programs to combat the depression: unemployment insurance, old age pensions, ending child labor, a 30-day work week, aid to farmers and homeowners facing foreclosures, universal health insurance and an adequate minimum wage. King concludes by crediting Thomas for influencing FDR's New Deal legislation and suggests that he be appointed US representative to the United Nations.

In his introduction, West provides further evidence that King was a democratic socialist. He quotes King's speech to staff in 1966: “There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” West acknowledges that King was neither Marxist nor communist but yet fully understood the critical role of class in capitalistic society and its impact on the poor and working people. King does make more explicit his philosophy and political views as he traces his path to nonviolence in “Stride Toward Freedom,” published in 1958. In his reading of Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto, he concludes that truth is found neither in Marxism nor in capitalism -- each only representing a partial truth. In 1967, that analysis is amplified in “Where Do We Go from Here.” West considers that to be King’s most radical SCLC presidential address. King points to the gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty creating conditions “permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few.” The good and just society, he maintains, is neither “the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism.” Achieving that goal, King exhorts, requires a restructuring of the whole of our society. “Why are there 40 million poor people? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question you begin to question the capitalistic economy.” Questioning the whole society, for King, would be seeing the problems of racism, exploitation and militarism as tied together.

Among the book's other selections are two speeches to the striking AFSCME Memphis sanitation workers: “All Labor Has Dignity,” connecting the strike to the plight of all workers and “I've Been to the Mountain Top,” with its prophetic vision. The civil rights leader generating great controversy for challenging American foreign policy emerges in his searing and powerful indictment of U.S. involvement in Viet Nam, “ Beyond Viet Nam: A time to Break Silence.” To those politicians who trumpet U.S. exceptionalism, King’s message in “The Drum Major Instinct,” one of his most famous sermons delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church two months before his assassination, is clear. A nation's true greatness cannot be simply asserted but must be earned.

West surmises that King, targeted by Hoover as a communist and subjected to a vicious FBI campaign of harassment, may have had to mute his democratic socialist leanings. King does confront anti-communism in a tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois. He reminds us that Du Bois was a genius who chose to be a communist, as did two literary giants of the twentieth century, Pablo Neruda and Sean O'Casey. It is time, King declares, to discard our “irrational obsessive anti-communism.” West offers this perspective on King's legacy: In our market driven society, the radical King had to be sanitized. However, if King had lived to pursue his economic democracy agenda, then the radical King would be well known.


Milt Tambor, a former staff representative and education coordinator for AFSCME Michigan Council 25 and associate member of the Wayne State University School of Social Work Graduate Faculty, is chair of Metro Atlanta DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 46 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.


  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 68 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps


Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.