Martin Luther King Jr took on capitalism — and was killed

A march in Memphis last year commemorating the 49th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr on April 4, 1968.

The murder of one of the great Black leaders of the time by white racists with the complicity of the US government, most likely the FBI, stunned all African Americans in the country.

Immediately, violent uprisings broke out in hundreds of cities and towns. These were the most widespread of the uprisings that marked the era of the civil rights movement and the rise of Black Power.

African American singer Nina Simone swiftly wrote a song titled “Why? The King of Love Is Dead”:

What's gonna happen now, in all of our cities?
My people are rising, they're living in lies
Even if they have to die, even if they have to die
At the moment they know what life is

Even at that one moment that ya know what life is
If you have to die, it's all right
'Cause you know what life is
You know what freedom is for one moment of your life

Scenes of the uprisings were broadcast on TV. One captured the national impact: in largely Black Washington DC, the Capitol Building was partially obscured by rising smoke from the burning city. The sentiment was that if “they” – in the parlance of the time, the white power structure – could kill King, the advocate of non-violence, they could do this to any Black person.

The police were not able to contain the upsurge. Everywhere, the National Guard was called out, 40,000 strong, to suppress it. Forty African Americans were killed, and hundreds more wounded and arrested.

One of those arrested was a young man named Andrew Pulley, who I later got to know. He was told by the judge that he faced two choices: prison or the army. He chose the army.

Once in the army, he met up at his base, Fort Jackson, with an anti-war group organised by socialist GIs. He became an anti-war fighter and socialist, and once out of the military joined the Young Socialist Alliance and Socialist Workers’ Party. He became a national leader of both.

The racist, anti-communist witch-hunter head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, singled out King as a target after the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott that King helped lead. Hoover then set up a secret program called COINTELPRO to counter the new Black movement with illegal surveillance, disinformation, arrests on trumped up charges and other dirty tricks.

In a later memo, Hoover ordered the agency to seek to prevent the emergence of “a Black messiah”, singling out King and Malcolm X.

Taking on the Establishment

Government attention on King became more pronounced when he came out against the Vietnam War in 1967. In doing so, he had to break with the rest of the civil rights establishment, who did not want to offend then-president Lyndon Johnson, who was committed to the war.

Recent memoirs by King supporters tell of how he was shunned. By coming out against the war, however, he did connect with the more militant youth wing led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who had earlier come out against the war, as did militant Black nationalists such as Malcolm X.

In explaining his position, he said that “my country” was “the greatest purveyor of violence” in the world.

It’s hard nowadays — when King’s name is used by capitalist politicians of all stripes, even by racists who twist King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech to boast they “have a dream” of ending affirmative action (which King strongly supported) — to recall how dominant anti-King statements were at the time. These came from the press, various federal and local law enforcement authorities, and were heard in Congress after he had spoken against the war.

The FBI was further alarmed when King sought to broaden the anti-racist struggle. From his entry onto the national stage with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott against segregation in public transport, he raised deeper questions about the oppression of Blacks.

After the victories of the civil rights movement in winning Black voting rights in the South, and the beginnings of the dismantling of segregation by law known as the “Jim Crow” system, King saw the economic super-exploitation of Blacks would be a more difficult problem to solve.

Questioning capitalism, suggesting socialism

He had begun to see that the struggle for racial equality was an economic struggle, and the capitalist system as the problem. In 1967, in a speech titled “The Other America”, he talked about “work-starved men searching for jobs that did not exist.”

He described the Black population as living on a “lonely island of poverty surrounded by an ocean of material prosperity,” and living in a “triple ghetto of race, poverty and human misery.”

“The movement must address itself to the restructuring of the whole of American society. There are 40 million poor people here,” he said.

“And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ 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 … We’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…

“It means questions must be raised. ‘Who owns the oil?’ ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’”

In 1968, King called for a “revitalised labour movement” to place “economic issues on the highest agenda”.

“The coalition of an energised section of labour, Negroes, unemployed, and welfare recipients may be the source of power that reshapes economic relationships and ushers in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform…”

In an earlier speech, King said: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums.

“You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folks then. You are messing with captains of industry…

“Now this means we are treading difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism … There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

Assassination

King was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, while supporting striking sanitation workers. The largely Black workforce became famous in photos of them holding signs reading “I Am A Man”.

The US is still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. It has been at war overtly or covertly since 1941. The anti-capitalist alliance of workers and all the oppressed that King outlined — and today we can add other sectors — is still the road forward.