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Acton Institute, Capitalism and MLK: The Uses and Abuses of Dr. King Part II

January 25, 2018

Earlier this month we posted a story about the Grand Rapids Urban League celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day, by hosting a corporate breakfast. Since this year is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, we plan to write numerous stories looking at Dr. King, his message and how his message is used by people and organizations to justify their own goals and values.

Last week, the Neoliberal religious entity, known as the Acton Institute, posted an article entitled, The 3 reasons Martin Luther King Jr. rejected Communism. The article was written by Rev. Ben Johnson, an Acton Institute editor and a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Johnson begins his remarks about King to say, “And 50 years after his death, his moral crusade for equal treatment under the law continues to inspire idealists across the globe.” While it is true that Dr. King has inspired idealists across the globe, his message was ultimately about being treated equally under the law. King certain focused much of his organizing, education and action in the early part of the Civil Rights/Black Freedom Movement on on an anti-segregation strategy, but by the 1963 March on Washington, King was no longer content with merely being treated  equal under the law. Dr. King had evolved and began to demand to much more by challenging the US war in Vietnam, calling out the system of White Supremacy and challenging the exploitative nature of capitalism.

The Acton Institute editor makes his claim that King denounced Communism, based on King’s writings from the 1950s. Again, this completely ignores the evolution that King went through and why the US government’s referred to King as the most dangerous Black man in the America.

It is true that King never identified with the philosophy of Communism, but this had more to do with the anti-religious aspect of Communism. However, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t thousands of African Americans who were attracted to Communism or Socialism during the peak of the Civil Rights/Freedom Movement. In fact, even in Grand Rapids, NAACP member William Glen, was also a member of the Communist Party. (see African Americans in the Furniture City, Jelks) Dr. King worked with people who were members of the Communist Party and acknowledged that they shared a great deal of common ground in the struggle for liberation.

The fact that the Acton Institute writer makes the claim that Dr. King rejected communism, is just a mechanism to then say that since King rejected Communism, he also embraced the values of capitalism. Rev. Johnson does even really make much of an argument that Dr. King rejected Communism, since that was not the point of his article. What Rev. Johnson and the Acton Institute was attempting to do, was to use a very narrow aspect of who Dr. King was, in order to convince their readership that, “We too can celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, because like us, Dr. King rejected Communism.

This misuse and misrepresentation of the message and person of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is morally reprehensible. If one spends anytime looking at the totality of who Dr. King was, one could easily draw the conclusion that Dr. King would reject the very mission of the Acton Institute. Here are 3 reasons why.

First, Dr. King began to make a stronger link between institutionalized racism and economic exploitation after the 1963 March on Washington. During the early 1960’s Civil Rights tactic of lunch counter sit ins, Dr. King (and many others) would soon begin to say things like:

“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger? What does it profit a man to be able to eat at the swankest integrated restaurant when he doesn’t even earn enough money to take his wife out to dine? What does it profit one to have access to the hotels of our cities, and the hotels of our highways, when we don’t earn enough money to take our family on a vacation? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school, when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?”

A Second reason why Dr. King would reject the values and mission of the Acton Institute, was his growing relationship with organized labor. In Michael Honey’s book, All Labor Has Dignity, the author provides detailed information on the growing partnership between organized labor and the civil rights/Black Freedom movement. In fact the book primarily consists of speeches that Dr. King gave at Labor Halls, Labor meetings and Labor conferences beginning as early as 1957.

In March of 1968, King spoke at Local 1199 in New York and stated:

“By the millions, people in the other America find themselves perishing on the lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. When there is massive unemployment in the black community, it’s called a social problem. But when there is massive unemployment in the white community, it’s called a depression. With the black man it’s welfare, with the white man it’s subsidies. This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”

And one need only remember that Dr. King was assassinated while he was in Memphis, Tennessee to support the striking sanitation workers.

A Third reason why Dr. King would reject the values of the Acton Institute, is because in his later years he began to question and reject the system of capitalism. In his Beyond Vietnam speech in 1967, Dr. King calls out the structural problem of capitalism.

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

After 1965, when Dr. King moved his operations to the north (particularly Chicago) he began to sharpen his critique of Capitalism. In 1966, Dr. King made this observation about housing injustice and landlords:

Lastly, the whole Poor People’s Campaign that King had been working on in the last few months of his life, was a campaign not asking for charity, rather it was a campaign to demand that the federal government pay massive reparations to blacks, King stated as early as 1964 (Why We Can’t Wait):

A great deal more could be said about why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would reject the mission and values of the Acton Institute, but we believe that this analysis is enough to demonstrate why the Acton Institute is guilty of misusing the message and person of Dr. King.

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