Go Tell It On the Mountain

by Scott McLemee on January 14, 2008

Thanks to recent developments in the Democratic primaries, trivialization of Martin Luther King’s legacy is off to an all-time early start this year. But Christopher Phelps has just published an excellent overview of recent historical work on MLK that knocks some of the ceremonial tinsel off—the better to see the real figure, who would never get a word in edgewise today.

The latest volume from the King Papers Project, for example

comprises King’s sermons from 1948 to 1963, which remind us of King’s immersion in the black Baptist church and of the wide range of theological sources and social criticism he drew upon. For King, Christianity was the social gospel. His outlook was astonishingly radical, especially for the McCarthy era. In a college paper entitled “Will Capitalism Survive?” King held that “capitalism has seen its best days in America, and not only in America, but in the entire world.” He concluded a 1953 sermon by asking his congregation to decide “whom ye shall serve, the god of money or the eternal God of the universe.” He opposed communism as materialistic, but argued that only an end to colonialism, imperialism, and racism, an egalitarian program of social equality, fellowship, and love, could serve as its alternative. In a 1952 letter responding to Coretta’s gift to him of a copy of Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialist novel Looking Backward (“There is still hope for the future … ,” she inscribed on its flyleaf), King wrote, “I would certainly welcome the day to come when there will be a nationalization of industry.”

The volume’s assiduous editorial annotation permits us to locate King in lived dialogue. We discover, for example, that his 1952 sermon on “Communism’s Challenge to Christianity,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, prompted a letter of retort from Melvin H. Watson, a Morehouse College professor and Ebenezer congregant, who attempted to set King straight on the virtues of Stalin. Watson, a holdover from the Communist-led Popular Front, helps us place King’s democratic radicalism in bold relief while providing a concrete illustration of how black communities retained a strong left-wing presence even after the 1940s.

The whole article is available online from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Looking over the passage just quoted, I had a flashback to various hopeless arguments with Chron copyeditors—for it is singularly absurd not to have capitalized the “c” in Phelps’s line mentioning that King “opposed communism as materialistic.”

The international Communist movement (corporate world headquarters in Moscow, later with rival franchise based in Peking) was indeed materialistic, yes. But would King have opposed communism, tout court? “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?

I doubt that very much: “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

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01.15.08 at 2:34 pm
Independent Liberal » King and Communism
01.15.08 at 5:24 pm
Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » How Martin Luther King, Jr. Wished To Be Remembered
01.21.08 at 7:57 am

{ 17 comments }

1

sab 01.14.08 at 11:31 pm

Readers and voters who are too young to remember that era should read at least the first, and preferably all three volumes of Taylor Branch’s amazing history of America during the King years.

As an aside, I’m pretty ticked at both the Clinton and the Obama campaigns for letting things degenerate into a gender v. race battle. I think there’s plenty of blame to be shared by both campaigns, but all it means is we are likelier to have a Republican president in ’09. Thanks, guys.

2

Christopher Phelps 01.15.08 at 1:49 am

Thanks for the notice of the piece. You are 100 percent correct about the Chronicle’s house style guide being responsible for the substitution of “communism” for “Communism” (I actually had a prefatory note on the distinction between these terms in my book, “Young Sidney Hook,” for which pedantic crime I’m undoubtedly now paying the karma price). So where “communism” exists, please substitute Stalinism. Hopefully readers will detect that and read over it. Anyway, again, thanks for the notice, and welcome any reader remarks.

3

Flippanter 01.15.08 at 2:27 am

Not to out-“[deceased person] would agree with me” a certified blogger, but Acts isn’t one of the Gospels.

Less flippantly, there have been works of theology since the First World War that challenged the tendency to interpret the Gospels to authorize any human order, as attractive as “the social Gospel” and liberation theology may be, especially to people who don’t particularly like the Gospels or theology.

4

vivian 01.15.08 at 2:42 am

christopher: “Hopefully readers will detect that and read over” don’t worry, we did. will. do. er – great article, thanks.

5

Scott McLemee 01.15.08 at 2:49 am

Acts isn’t one of the Gospels.

Did anyone say that it is? If the Southern Baptist Convention taught me nothing else — and it didn’t — then at least it made that kind of mistake unthinkably impossible.

6

Scott McLemee 01.15.08 at 2:55 am

It is attributed to Luke, however, and presents itself more or less as the action-packed sequel to his Gospel.

And the idea that the early church was communistic isn’t exactly something cooked up in the 1980s to curry favor with the Sandinistas.

7

Andrew R. 01.15.08 at 3:42 am

The secular hagiography that we get of King in U.S. primary schools is of course going to blot out MLK the man. Of course any controversy is rubbed off. MLK the social democrat and VietCong sympathizer is no more going to appear in an elementary school classroom than is the Thomas Jefferson rogering his favorite slave on French furniture he couldn’t afford.

Saying, “I approve of Dr. King” is, in contemporary American politics, the equivalent of saying, “I approve of puppies.”

And that’s a good thing. Having a civil rights leader up there in the pantheon of civic saints can only be good for race relations. After all, within a decade and a half from a time when black people in the American southeast could be shot by white people with impunity, public displays of racism were already unacceptable. The rapid (if superficial) acceptance of equality for non-whites came about partially because of how quickly MLK joined the ranks of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington in the elementary school classroom.

8

Beryl 01.15.08 at 4:54 am

‘… according to his need’

9

novakant 01.15.08 at 9:16 am

MLK the social democrat and VietCong sympathizer is no more going to appear in an elementary school classroom

Social democracy, Vietcong sympathies and slavery all in one enumeration of sins – is social democracy really held in that low a regard in the US?

10

Slocum 01.15.08 at 1:06 pm

Saying, “I approve of Dr. King” is, in contemporary American politics, the equivalent of saying, “I approve of puppies.”

Sure, and one can approve of Dr. King’s civil rights leadership without approving of all of his political and economic ideas. The same goes for Gandhi — great leader, great man, terrible economist. And Jefferson — great political thinker and polymath, but a slave-owner and terrible hypocrite. So it goes.

11

Flippanter 01.15.08 at 1:25 pm

Sure, and one can approve of Dr. King’s civil rights leadership without approving of all of his political and economic ideas.

I don’t think that’s possible, given the natural and willed limitations of the mass media and their audience. “I approve…” is a great deal simpler than “I approve of this, but not of that, because….”

12

engels 01.15.08 at 4:08 pm

So there’s really no need to choose between serving God and Mammon after all: the Former is a great deity–but a terrible economist…

13

Andrew R. 01.15.08 at 7:34 pm

No real moral judgment implied, just noting that the figures encountered in the primary school classroom are often vastly different from the historical figures as they were.

14

Sseziwa Mukasa 01.15.08 at 9:02 pm

But would King have opposed communism, tout court? “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?

I doubt that very much: “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

Taking Biblical quotes out of context does not a good argument make. The passage in Acts refers specifically to the organization of early Christian communities and is of a piece with the Gospel parables of the rich young man and the workers in the vineyard. Thus the passage in Acts is meant to confirm that the Christian communities were indeed following the lessons of Christ, similarly to the miraculous healing and other events related in the Book. But this is only for organizing the Christian community within itself, it does not address how the Christian community or individual Christians should handle property rights with respect to the outside world. On the other hand the parable of the talents and the aforementioned parable of the workers in the vineyard can be read as respectful of property rights and in fact a defense of the same. Even though he may have been an indifferent theologian, I suspect Dr. King would be quite aware of these two threads of argument running through the New Testament and thus cautious to endorse either laissez faire capitalism or communism.

15

Sseziwa Mukasa 01.15.08 at 9:08 pm

If I was better at making theological arguments I’d probably be able to draw a better conclusion from the fact that all these parables are in the Book of Matthew who was traditionally held to have been a tax collector. So for that matter is the “render unto Caesar” passage.

16

harold 01.16.08 at 6:10 am

Don’t think MLK made a “fetish of capitalism.”
Thought that the worker was worthy of his hire, too. None of that incompatible with Christianity.

17

bernarda 01.16.08 at 11:27 am

If anyone has the 1961 BBC interview with MLK on the old Face to Face program, it would be great if you could post a link or post it on Youtube. He is very moving and poetic in talking about his life and views.

http://www.birth-of-tv.org/birth/assetView.do?asset=BIRTHOFTELEV19001____111842296033

There is an interview on youtube from 1957.

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=martin+luther+king+interview&search=Search

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