Fact Check: Was Dr. Martin Luther King Anti-Capitalist?

Fact Check: Was Dr. Martin Luther King Anti-Capitalist?

Martin Luther King
Fact Check: Was Dr. Martin Luther King Anti-Capitalist? Photo: Dr. Martin Luther King tells a news conference in Selma, Alabama on Feb. 5, 1965, that he feels there is a need for new legislation on the right to vote. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a July 18, 1952 letter to Coretta Scott, who would become his wife in 1953, that he thought capitalism had outlived its usefulness.

“I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic,” Dr. King wrote. “(Capitalism) started out with a noble and high motive… but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has out-lived its usefulness.” 

It wasn’t only in private that King panned capitalism. In a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta, Dr. King declared on Aug. 16, 1967, “Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis,” according to MLK Global.

Dr. King, most observers agree, was decidedly anti-capitalism.

He was, in fact, “a strong and uncompromising opponent of American capitalism. This was no late-in-life development for King. It spanned from his youthful years to his death while attempting to gain humane wages and working conditions for a public union,” according to the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW21).

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While capitalism generates wealth, it comes at a cost as it tends to reward a “me-first” attitude. King saw capitalism as a tool to systematically oppress and exploit others. He often complained that “capitalism values profits over people, promotes material values over spiritual values,” IBW21 reported.

During a speech to the SCLC Board on March 30, 1967, MLK said, “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism,” according to Common Dreams.

Despite his dislike for capitalism, King wasn’t tied to socialism either. 

“Although King specifically advocated for democratic socialism as the ameliorator of the vast chasm between rich and poor, it is clear that his primary interest was not in democratic socialism or in any ideology for its own sake. His concern was for poor people’s needs to be addressed, for all to have equal opportunities to thrive, for workers to have democratic rights in the workplace,” IBW21 reported.

While King leaned towards democratic socialism, his “allegiance was to whatever form of political economy could ameliorate the vast chasm between rich and poor,” IBW21 reported.

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King wasn’t just anti-capitalist in his words. He had been planning a Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. when he was assassinated. The march was held in June 1968, three months after his death, to advocate for the poor.

“We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system,” King said in 1967 while the Poor People’s March was being planned. “Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent.”