“The Economic Philosophy of MLK”, Foreign Policy

By Cameron Abadi, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy, January 16, 2023

Martin Luther King Jr.’s critique of capitalism was central to his civil rights campaign from the start.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, smile broadly amid a crowd of cheering followers after the civil rights leader's conviction for his part in the Montgomery bus boycott
Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, smile amid a crowd of cheering followers after the civil rights leader’s conviction for his part in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 23, 1956. The boycott used the economic might of the Black community in a push for desegregation. BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

The United States has observed a national holiday dedicated to the life of Martin Luther King Jr. since 1986. King was a monumental figure in U.S. history, a tireless fighter for equal rights for Black people, and a pioneer in nonviolent civil disobedience. But in the years before his assassination, he also became increasingly outspoken about economic policy and economic justice.

What are the economic preconditions of nonviolent civil disobedience? Were King’s economic views tangential or essential to his civil rights philosophy? And how has U.S. capitalism reconciled itself to King’s work and legacy? Those are a few of the questions that came up in my recent conversation with FP economics columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity.

For the full conversation, look for Ones and Tooze wherever you get your podcasts.

Cameron Abadi: To start with Martin Luther King Jr.’s work on mass nonviolent protest, what exactly are the economic preconditions for that kind of civil disobedience? Historically, is this a phenomenon of a certain level of economic development?

Adam Tooze: You might think so if you had some kind of evolutionary theory of political development and attenuation of violence where opposition to violence was dependent on college education or some index of that type. But it would be historically wrong. After all, the 20th-century icon of nonviolence before MLK was [Mohandas] Gandhi in colonial India, and left-wing critics of Gandhi would say that he was about class politics—it was the politics of the upper class, and it was about containing the threat of popular violence and the ultimate threat of a peasant revolution, Mao-style. But whatever take you have on Gandhi and nonviolence, it was certainly a politics of a poor society, which mobilized tens and then hundreds of millions of people in opposition to the British Empire. And it used the tactics of the poor. So, if a colonial government imposed a tax on a certain commodity, you tried to do without it. So, for instance, you can strike, you can boycott state events, you can turn your back on the official dignitaries who visit. And nonviolent protest in this form is much more crucially dependent on different types of discipline, the ability to discipline protesters, on the one hand. But it’s also, of course, a question really of disciplining power. And I think those are much more crucial determinants of whether nonviolent resistance becomes possible or not.

I mean, think about the instance of National Socialist Germany. Nonviolent resistance in the Warsaw ghetto is not going to make that much of difference to a genocidal Nazi regime. On the other hand, nonviolent protest by German women against the euthanasia campaign in Berlin actually did stop the Nazi regime. So it’s a condition of the incredibly tense and complex balance between the means of protest on the one hand and the kinds of forms of repression that are used on the other hand.

CA: What exactly is the main lever by which nonviolent protest of this kind creates social change? Is it through moral suasion, moral pressure on the conscience of passive supporters of injustice? Or is it economic pressure?

AT: I think it’s a combination of mechanisms, and that’s worth emphasizing because there’s almost a kind of mystical, magical feel that’s around the idea of nonviolent protest. And I think it’s important to demystify that. But it’s also crucial to actually understand the kind of almost vertiginous quality that nonviolent politics takes at the hands of its classic exponents, Gandhi and King, because it’s the opposite of passive, right? King himself said that he would never have joined the pacifist movement. It can almost seem aggressive in the way that it deliberately calls the bluff of those who claim that their power will be founded on violence. He goads them into striking the protester. It goads them into shedding blood. And in the process of doing so, it exposes the horror and the lack of legitimacy of what they’re involved in. So it’s not so much moral suasion, if you like—it’s moral force. Also, by calling it nonviolent, I think we also appropriately register the fact that it is always hedged by the threat of violence. Around the edges of that always lurks the threat that if you don’t deal with us, you’ll deal with somebody else. There’s no doubt in the case of the civil rights struggle in the United States that the willingness of some Black people and Black communities to defend themselves with the gun in hand also played a vital role in the ecology of the nonviolent civil rights struggle.

Of course, there was also, as you stressed, an economic component here. I mean, if you take the classic first phase, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, it’s an economic protest because 75 percent of the riders on the Montgomery bus system were Black. So the boycott is classically Gandhian. It’s a demonstration of economic independence on the one hand because the Black community organized alternative means of transport. But it’s also a way of forcing the white establishment to come to terms. So they work in conjunction with each other.

AT: I think there’s a stage theory here, which is not entirely unreasonable, and it was an explicit tactic of King’s in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to have a first wave starting in the mid-1950s to achieve the passage of the Civil Rights Act in ’64 and the Voting Rights Act in ’65. And then to move on to a wider campaign for social transformation in American society. And that was always understood as a phase model. But those two phases were always interlocked and in fact inseparable. I don’t think there’s any question at all that from the beginning, from King’s early childhood, the two things were closely linked. He grew up in quite a prosperous family, but he was born in 1929. So he was immediately exposed to the poverty of the Great Depression. And in one of his earliest college papers, written in 1950, King wrote that “there are two inseparable twins, the twins of racial injustice and economic injustice. These are directly linked.” This is the authentic voice of somebody who clearly understands that his spirituality, his politics of racial liberation and social and economic justice are just completely inseparable.

And in that first struggle, the bus boycott in 1955, which is now remembered, of course, for Rosa Parks’s activism, if you look into the biography of Parks, she was a social justice militant, first and foremost, who since the ’40s had been linked to American leftism. Her husband had been involved with communist-associated movements in the 1930s. And so the Montgomery bus dispute, for all its sort of iconic elementary school simplicity, was in fact an act of American social radicalism. And if you think about it, if it’s true that 75 percent of the bus customers are Black, it’s also true that they are, by definition, working-class. I mean, this is a social justice issue because why are you riding a bus? You’re riding a bus because you don’t have a car. And that is a marker of your working-class status in 1950s American society. So this neat distinction between the phase of political and legal civil rights and the economic struggle that comes afterward is false. And after Martin Luther King’s killing, Coretta Scott King carries this campaign onward.

CA: It’s fascinating to know about the depth of King’s thinking and of his commitment to economic justice. Yet it does seem to me that Marxism as a kind of competing model for the resistance of the world’s disadvantaged offers a slightly different way of thinking about social justice and social justice movements. Obviously, King is such a hallowed figure in the United States—he rarely comes under any criticism. But what would a Marxist critique of King’s activism be? And maybe to turn it around, how, if at all, did King criticize Marxism?

AT: King was an intellectual first and foremost. He had a deep grounding in continental philosophy and theology of the interwar period. And so, naturally, he read Marx. I mean, you couldn’t have that kind of education and not have read Marx quite extensively. And he was profoundly opposed to the metaphysical structures of communism and Marxism and to the ends-means logic, as you’d expect. But I think one of the things that he took from Marxism in a typically self-critical way was the risk that religion can become the opium of the masses, that it can become a tool in the hands of the middle classes. If there was one thing he was determined it should not be, it was that.

CA: I did want to now finally end by asking about King’s present-day role in the United States and its economy. It seems as if King’s image has been embraced across the country, including by major corporations across the economy, and in popular culture. What does that say about the United States and its system of capitalism?

AT: I mean, it does in some sense tend to confirm the worst fears of the most radical reading of the metastasizing, omnivorous qualities of capitalism—that it can assimilate anything. But this has been there really from the beginning. I mean, the association between the civil rights movement and popular culture is absolutely endemic. You know that Pete Seeger and people like that were part of the campaigns of the mid-1950s already. And it’s also true that there was an emerging alignment between big corporate money and the civil rights movement from a surprisingly early stage. I mean, take Timemagazine, which put King on its cover in 1957. And this was in a society that had effectively outlawed W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, both of whom had essentially been stripped of their passports and had their public lives destroyed because they had spoken out against American militarism and were too closely aligned with the Soviet Union in the views of the day. King was already being turned into an assimilated commodity on the cover of Timemagazine in ’57.

Then you have the famous counterboycotts that took place on corporate property in 1960—they took place in Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. All of a sudden, Woolworth’s, which is a global department store business, discovers it needs Black business consultants to figure out how to manage this terrifying public relations problem that it now has with the politics of America and its most odious forms being literally fought out at its diner counters. And Woolworth’s desegregated officially in July 1960 as a result and in part as the result of mediation between Black business consultants in the civil rights movement. And today, that particular Woolworth’s store location is a civil rights museum. Or take 1964, when MLK wins the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s lionized the world over. But what is Atlanta going to do with this fact? The first son of the city to win a Nobel Prize is a notorious Black radical activist, and they clearly have to give King a welcome banquet when he returns to the city in ’65. But the terrifying thing is that no one is buying tickets. None of the white establishment that had the money was actually buying tickets. So what did the mayor do? Ivan Allen at the time, he turned to the powerhouse corporate brokers of the city of Atlanta. And in the mid-1960s, that’s Coca-Cola. And Coca-Cola was a global company with a global reputation. And all of a sudden, the word goes out from Coca-Cola that the company cannot stay in a city that’s going to have this kind of reaction and not honor a Nobel Prize winner. Coca-Cola snaps its fingers, and the white elite of Atlanta turns out to give Martin Luther King and his wife a fitting reception on their return to the city.

CA: I mean, I just have to ask, is there some special quality about King that made him assimilable in this way? Or is that just something about capitalism? It can assimilate anything, any criticism, any force it can suck into its maw and assimilate in this way?

AT: It’s quite difficult to think of any major cultural figures who in one way or another have escaped that commercialization, if you think of Karl Marx T-shirts and, you know, Che Guevara memorabilia. But King, he walked a fine line. This was not a man who presented himself as a flaming radical. He was known as Tweed. He drove nice new cars. He was a man who was conscious of social standing, in a sense, who exuded profound personal dignity. And, you know, there’s no doubt a kind of charisma that is irresistible.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.