The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The public has underestimated the radicalism of Martin Luther King Jr.’s early work

From the beginning of the 1950s, King embraced a utopian socialist vision of full equality

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta in 1960. The civil rights leader organized protests, led marches and made powerful speeches exposing the scourges of segregation, poverty and racism. (AP)
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In recent years, popular commentaries on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have emphasized his growing radicalism before his 1968 assassination. This fits neatly into a narrative of a maturing activist and a burgeoning left in the late 1960s. Indeed, by 1967, King had become a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism. He also spoke often about the structural inequalities of housing segregation and employment discrimination.

These positions seemingly contrasted with earlier desegregation efforts and his championing of nonviolent direct action, which are often viewed as less consequential than challenging structural racism. What is missing from this simplistic depiction of King’s activism is a deeper understanding of just how radical nonviolent resistance initially was deemed to be in the 1940s and 1950s, even within the civil rights community. King’s early and consistent engagement with socialist and utopian thought is also misunderstood. In other words, well before the first bombs dropped in Vietnam and the urban rebellions exploded in American cities, King was challenging the most profound inequalities of class and race.

King learned about the power of utopian thinking from the woman who would become his wife. Coretta Scott grew up in Jim Crow-era Alabama and attended one of the few high schools that accepted Black students. While there, she first met the Black pacifist and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who lectured the students about Gandhi and the principles of nonviolence. Her early introduction to pacifist politics was expanded when Scott attended the liberal Antioch College in 1946, where she again encountered Rustin. At Antioch, she also became active in the college NAACP chapter, and in 1948 she campaigned for Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party’s candidate for president. Wallace’s party called for an end to segregation, full voting rights for African Americans and national health insurance.

Musically gifted as a singer and violinist, Scott attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she met King, who was a seminary student nearby at Boston University. In 1951, she gave King a book: Edward Bellamy’s best-selling 1888 utopian novel, “Looking Backward.” Bellamy’s work was a vision of a socialist utopia set in the year 2000, in which a nonviolent revolution in the United States had produced an egalitarian society where industry was nationalized and everyone ate in communal dining rooms, shopped in consumer cooperatives and retired at age 45. Bellamy’s utopia was deeply popular with Americans concerned about rising inequality in Gilded Age America. By 1892, there were 150 nationalist clubs where readers, intellectuals and activists met to discuss Bellamy’s ideas and plot their own plans for cooperatives and social reform. Because his utopia did not require violent revolution, but rather peaceful, if swift, evolution, it was particularly popular among pacifists.

King wrote Scott a letter to thank her for the book and included his response to Bellamy’s utopian vision. “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. … Today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” He finished his letter, “Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color.” This utopian socialist vision of full equality, embraced by both Scott and King, was central to the campaigns they launched in the next decades.

King’s critique of capitalism and militarism was also tied to his growing interest in radical pacifism and the use of nonviolent direct action. King first encountered the works of Gandhi at the Philadelphia Fellowship House in 1950, a center of nonviolent teaching and interracial communion. There, he listened to a sermon by Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University. “His message was so profound and electrifying,” recalled King, “that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.”

By then, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had been carrying out desegregation campaigns using nonviolent direct action since 1942. Founded in Chicago by Rustin, along with James Farmer, George Houser and other young pacifists, CORE members lived in interracial communes, such as the Harlem Ashram in New York. Having immersed themselves in works on nonviolence, they began to apply the tactic to segregated public accommodations in northern and border states. CORE members launched sit-ins at segregated restaurants, “skate-ins” at segregated roller-skating rinks and “swim-ins” at segregated pools and beaches. They faced beatings and arrest but successfully forced businesses to abide by existing state civil rights laws. And they honed the tactic of nonviolent direct action, writing manuals and training thousands of other activists.

These pacifists were launching what they called a “nonviolent revolution,” demanding immediate change rather than the gradual reforms promoted by the NAACP and other moderate organizations. Indeed, nonviolent direct action was often denounced by mainstream civil rights organizations as lawbreaking. This included the NAACP, which did not support nonviolent direct action until its 1960 convention. Even W.E.B. Du Bois viewed CORE’s nonviolent campaigns as a misstep and suicidal if brought to the Deep South, where they would face lynch mobs.

King became fully convinced of the utility of nonviolence at the outbreak of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, when the White pacifist Glenn Smiley traveled with Rustin to Alabama to advise him. They brought their experiences with direct action to Montgomery and encouraged King, who kept weapons in his home for self-defense, to fully embrace nonviolence. King’s open embrace of nonviolence came with political risks. The application of nonviolent direct action, as pioneered by CORE, required a commitment to defying laws and angering potential allies. The earlier defiance of radical pacifists during World War II and the early Cold War also led many to accuse them of being “maladjusted.”

Despite the resistance to radical nonviolence, in 1957 King defended its practitioners in a speech at the Highlander Folk School. Like the Philadelphia Fellowship House and CORE’s ashrams and communes, Highlander trained activists to be on the front lines of the movement.

King’s speech echoed the language he used to respond to Bellamy’s book six years before. “There are some things in our social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted,” said King. “I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of mob rule. … I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

King’s utopian vision of a classless society premised on full equality predated the Vietnam War and the urban revolts of the 1960s by more than a decade. Nurtured by interracial pacifist communities such as the Fellowship House and the Highlander Folk School, King was always a radical. Understanding the fullness of King’s influences points to a more far-reaching vision for our own future: a society that takes luxuries from the classes to give to the masses.