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)