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“A Mighty Stream”: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Faith Guided Him to a Commitment to Economic Justice

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota. (Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)

Reverend Sekou’s review of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. focuses on MLK’s yearning for economic justice and “a warless world, a better distribution of wealth and a brotherhood that transcends race or color.”

“Darling I miss you so much. In fact, much too much for my own good. I never realized that you were such an intimate part of my life,” writes a young graduate student, Martin Luther King Jr. to his love interest, Coretta Scott. They are separated for a few months because King had gone home to Atlanta for the summer after his first year as a PhD student at Boston University School of Theology. King opens the letter by sharing how much he missed her. Honing the oratory that would go on to seize the consciousness of a nation, King laid it on thick. “My life without you is like a year without a spring time, which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere, which has been saturated by the dark cold breeze of winter.”

Turning to “something more intellectual,” King indicated that he finished reading Bellamy’s “fascinating” book. In April 1952, Scott sent King a copy of Edward Bellamy’s socialist novel, Looking Backward 2000-1887. She inscribes the gift with a note expressing her interest in his reaction to “Bellamy’s prediction about our society.” The utopian science fiction novel took place in Boston, where both King and Scott were graduate students. Written in 1888 and set in the year 2000, the novel’s protagonist Julian West awoke from a 130-year slumber to realize that the United States has been transformed into a socialist society. West offered a stunning criticism of the faith practices of the 19th century:

“Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the 19th century was in name Christian, and the fact that the entire industrial and commercial frame of society was the embodiment of the anti-Christian spirit must’ve had some weight, though I admit it was strangely little, with the nominal followers of Jesus Christ.”

In the mushy July 1952 love letter, King thanks Scott “a million times” for introducing him to “such a stimulating book.” After anointing Bellamy a “social prophet,” King made a striking confession: “I am more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” He went on to share that capitalism has outlived its usefulness. For King, capitalism was “a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” King believes that Bellamy’s prophecy is premature because “capitalism will need more time to die.” King celebrates the novel’s nationalization of industry. While King rejects Marxism and communism’s dialectical materialism, he shares with his wife-to-be that he concurs with Bellamy’s basic thesis.

King’s praise of Bellamy was not the musing of a young man hoping to impress a well-read and activist co-ed. Early in his life, he began to harbor feelings against economic inequality. Born on the edge of the Great Depression, King was sensitized to the challenges of economic deprivation. As a divinity student pursuing his bachelor’s degree at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, King recalled in 1950:

I was much too young to remember the beginning of this depression, but I do recall how I questioned my parents about the numerous people standing in bread lines when I was about five years of age. I can see the effects of this early childhood experience on my present anti-capitalistic feelings.

The King family home on Sweet Auburn, as well as the family tree, was awash in racial politics and radical religion. His father, the venerable “Daddy” King was a founder of the local NAACP chapter and worked to improve educational conditions for black Atlantans. His father and his father before him were all gospel preachers who believed that ministry must uplift the life chances of the people.

Shaped by the black social gospel that claimed Christianity must be equally concerned about personal and social salvation, King was bathed in the tradition of clergy-statesmen – Benjamin Mays, Mordecai Johnson and Howard Thurman. Thurman, Mays and Johnson all made pilgrimages to India to study the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. They are the elder gadflies to a young undergraduate at Morehouse College. King always traveled with a copy of Howard Thurman’s theological rebuke of segregation – Jesus and the Disinherited. As a graduate student at Boston University, he would take a seminar on Gandhian nonviolence and make his own nonviolent pilgrimage to Gandhi’s laboratory, where he experimented with truth.

For King, his calling as a minister required a fundamental assessment of capital. Toward the end of his July love letter, King asserts a prophetic vision. With hope, work and prayer, King yearned for “a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.”

The whirlwind of history would test the young theologian’s resolve. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the March on Washington to the Birmingham Campaign to the Nobel Peace Prize, King held fast to his commitment to nonviolence and the black social gospel of his upbringing. On September 30, 1962, King delivered a sermon with the subject, “Can a Christian Be a Communist?” to his Ebenezer Baptist Church. In the sermon, he raised the issue of wealth inequality. “One does not have to be a communist to be concerned about this. I would say to you this morning that one-tenth of one percent of the population of this nation controls almost 50 percent of the wealth, and I don’t mind saying that there’s something wrong with that.” He preached to a responsive audience.

With Lincoln watching over the noble heirs of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. witnessed to a nation growing impatient with racial and economic oppression. In the now ubiquitous “I Have A Dream” speech, King articulated the “fierce urgency of now.” He persisted that America could not be satisfied as long as black folk’s “basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.”

In his seldom-celebrated speech against the Vietnam War, King reminded Coretta and told the world of his gospel. On April 4, 1967, King mounted the sacred desk at the cathedral of liberal Protestantism – Riverside Church. Slowly, deliberately and with sorrow he pleaded with his nation to disengage from its misguided adventure in Southeast Asia. He situated his ministry in the broader context of public criticism.

“At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: ‘Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent…. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?’ they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling…. In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church – the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate – leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight. I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation.”

Given his trade as preacher, he notes that it made sense that a moral vision shape his opposition to the war. One of the most passionate sections of the speech highlights the impact of the war in Vietnam on the “War on Poverty.” A year before his anti-Vietnam speech, King set his prophetic eyes on northern poverty. Understanding that integrating a lunch counter was only part of the solution, King is quoted by colleagues as having said that after getting to the lunch counter, one needs money to buy a hamburger. Integration, according to King, did not cost the nation anything, but the nation must put large sums of money into programs that would end poverty. In 1966, King moved into a ghetto tenement in Chicago. The intent of King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was to use “‘the moral force’ of the ‘nonviolent movement philosophy’ to eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.” The modestly successful campaign brought King face to face with the realties of urban poverty and economic deprivation. Hence, he began his critique of the opposition to the war in Vietnam by connecting it to the abject poverty of American ghettos.

“There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor – both black and white – through the poverty program…. Then came the buildup in Vietnam … and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

In “A Time to Break the Silence,” King delivers a damnable exegesis of the nation’s soul. America had become possessed by the giant triples of evil: materialism, militarism and racism. All at odds with his gospel of a warless world (militarism); a better distribution of wealth (materialism); and a brotherhood that transcends race or color (racism). Again, King’s calling – “a vocation of agony” – rebuked war, poverty, and racism as spiritual maladies that must be healed with civil disobedience and political will.

A little over a month after the anti-Vietnam speech at Riverside, King appeared on NBC news’ “The Frank McGee Sunday Report.” King added his voice to the growing dissent against the war in Vietnam based on moral conviction and ministerial obligation. During the interview, he dismissed the accusation that the civil rights movement was dead. King argued that the movement entered a new phase – economic justice.

“For 12 years we struggled to end legal segregation and all of the humiliation surrounding legal segregation…. So it was a struggle for decency…. Now we are in a new phase and that is a phase where we are seeking genuine equality, where we are dealing with hard economic and social issues. It means the job is much more difficult. It is much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an income. It is much easier to integrate a bus than it is to get a program that will force the government to put billions of dollars to ending slums.”

After he acknowledged the disproportionate number of African-Americans dying in Vietnam’s swamps and poppy fields, King comments that African-Americans died, spiritually and psychologically, in American ghettos. Over and over again, King places his sense of calling at the center of his activism. A couple of weeks after the Riverside speech, King told a Cleveland audience that the war in Vietnam was “evil.” And, that if he did not speak out against the war, God would have “the rocks cry out against the war.”

“Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America,” proclaimed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The occasion was the annual meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly. The group was honoring Heschel on his 60th birthday for his activism and scholarship. Heschel was well-qualified to discern the prophetic nature of Dr. King’s work. In 1962, Heschel published The Prophets, a landmark study of the Hebrew prophets. “The prophet was an individual who said ‘No’ to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism,” writes Heschel.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not only said “no” to segregation, but also economic injustice. His last public crusade was against poverty. Having relied on the federal government to cooperate with the aims of the civil rights movement, the new phase of the movement now challenged the federal government to devote billions of dollars to end poverty. With this aim, King and the SCLC launched the Poor People’s Campaign. In 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign pointed out that big business had lobbyists, but 35 million people living in poverty did not. By assembling a multi-racial coalition of the poor, the campaign planned to descend on Washington and occupy the nation’s capital until the Congress passed legislation that included a guaranteed income.

In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King voiced yet another democratic socialist possibility. “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income,” he cautiously shared. During one of his final staff meetings, he asked the tape recorder to be turned off and shared with those gathered that he was a democratic socialist, but could not say so public without losing even more support for the controversial poor people’s venture.

With the assassin’s bullet polished in a dingy room, readied to be fired setting the nation ablaze, King mounted the holy seat of black Pentecostalism. In defense of black and broke sanitation workers, King spoke a word about his own demise. Ever connecting the dots, he issued a request to the folks listening to him at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ. He told them to tell the great businesses, Coca Cola and Wonder Bread, that God sent them by to tell them that they are not treating God’s children right. He then called for an economic boycott of these companies. In Trumpet of Conscience, King instigated the birth of an “Occupy movement” with mass dislocation as means to highlight economic injustice. For King, this was not simply the fantasy of utopian novelist, but rather the Poor People’s Campaign was a “freedom church for the poor.”

Long after America’s prophet was silenced by the very avarice that he deplored, his words still burn with uncanny accuracy. In the last two years, ordinary citizens throughout world – Egypt, Palestine, Tunisia, Zuccotti Park, Greece, Paris and London – have carried signs with his word, his spirit in their heart as they risk life and limb to be free from tyranny and poverty.