“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.

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