Americans Misunderstand the Radical Vision of even the Young MLKRoundup
tags: civil rights, radicalism, Martin Luther King Jr., social justice
Victoria W. Wolcott is a professor of history at the University at Buffalo and author of three books: Remaking Respectability: African-American Women in Interwar Detroit, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America and the forthcoming Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement.
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.
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