Author: Peter Dreier
“In fact, King was a radical. He believed that America needed a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.” He challenged America’s class system and its racial caste system. He was a strong ally of the nation’s labor union movement. He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike. He opposed US militarism and imperialism, especially the country’s misadventure in Vietnam…
It is often forgotten that the August 1963 protest rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King was proud of the civil rights movement’s success in winning the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year. But he realized that neither law did much to provide better jobs or housing for the masses of black poor in either the urban cities or the rural South. “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter,” he asked, “if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”
These experiences led King to develop a more radical outlook. King supported President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty in 1964, but, like his friend and ally Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, King thought that it did not go nearly far enough. As early as October 1964, he called for a “gigantic Marshall Plan” for the poor – black and white. Two months later, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he observed that the United States could learn much from Scandinavian “democratic socialism.” He began talking openly about the need to confront “class issues,” which he described as “the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.”
This essay is adapted from the entry for Martin Luther King in Peter Dreier’s book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.