Martin Luther King Jr. as Social Gospel Socialist: Economic Democracy, Religious Philosophy, Political Philosophy, and Black Power

Gary Dorrien unpacks the formation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s full-orbed Christian socialism and the role it played in his activism and the Black freedom movement.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to democratic socialism was never a secret among those who knew him well. Many of them—Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Vincent Harding, Benjamin E. Mays, James Farmer, James Bevel, Jack O’Dell, Norman Thomas, and Michael Harrington—were democratic socialists desperate to keep King’s socialism a secret. And every staffer and insider in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference knew about King’s socialism, because he talked about it frankly at SCLC retreats, always with an admonition not to betray the secret.

Coming out as a democratic socialist held similar dangers to opposing the Vietnam War and expressing his sympathy for Black Power. The Cold War loomed over the socialist problem and the problem of the Vietnam War. Expressing his sympathy for Black Power posed mortal threats to the Civil Rights Movement and required subtle distinctions quickly erased in the heat of battle. But in the last year given to him, King accepted all the dangers and fallout that came from becoming an anti-war leader, and he painstakingly explained his complex relationship to the Black Power movement. Yet the one commitment he could not expound publicly was the one he held from the beginning. King took for granted from seminary onward that the social gospel at its best is democratic socialist. He wanted throughout his career to be able to talk about it openly. Instead, all he could do was emphasize economic justice and commit SCLC to the Poor People’s Campaign. 

MLK had a full-orbed political philosophy. He wrote and spoke about freedom, liberalism, equality, anti-racism, justice, morals, virtue, idealism, realism, Black Power, anti-militarism, natural law, dialectics, sacrifice, nationalism, reconciliation, reparations, and community, always from a coherent perspective that he partly veiled by necessity. He was a Social Democratic socialist of a civic republican bent who struggled in Gandhian nonviolent fashion to abolish White supremacy and America’s system of racial caste. It was a political philosophy that creatively mediated the debate in Black political thought between Black nationalism and liberal integration while propelling him into global post-colonial struggles against racism, militarism, and imperialism. 

But the socialist part of his Christian socialism was unmentionable in his time, and today the Christian part is a mighty obstacle for political science and philosophy departments. Textbooks on political philosophy range between rarely mentioning King and never mentioning him. The academy is not geared to recognize a political philosophy based on Christian theological arguments about sacred human dignity, even from King. MLK could not have been more explicit that social gospel Christianity and a personalist strain of post-Kantian idealism were foundationally important to him. He was a product of the Black Church, Morehouse College, and two seminaries, all of which taught him a language of sacred human dignity and social justice struggle. He said his Christian personal idealism was his philosophical mainstay, enabling him to speak with a confident theological voice to secular and religious audiences alike. 

Theology was never just church-talk to King. His public theology fused an interreligious rhetoric with Black social gospel personalism, neo-Hegelian idealism, Christian socialism, Gandhian non-violence, and Niebuhrian realism. His religious philosophy undergirded his political philosophy and was not an obstacle to having one. Christian socialism was central to both, though I do not mean that it was what he most cared about. King cared above all about bearing the cross. 

Lightning struck on December 1, 1955, when King launched the Montgomery bus boycott. He was steeped in the Black social gospel that his father and mentors preached and had a freshly minted Ph.D. from Boston University. King imagined how his mentors would respond to the moment. He had argued in his doctoral dissertation that God is the personal ground of the infinite value of human personality. This two-sided credo had a negative corollary confirming King’s deepest feeling. Evil is precisely that which degrades personality, the sacred dignity of every human life. And if the worth of personality is the ultimate value in life, America’s racial caste system was abhorrently evil, and distinctly evil on Christian grounds. The purpose of US American racial caste was to humiliate, exclude, and degrade the personhood of African Americans; if Christianity meant anything in the US American context, it had to speak and shout a contrary word. 

The movement made King, not the other way around, but the movement that swept him to prominence in December 1955 would not have caught fire without him. 

Rustin and Gandhian activist Glenn Smiley rushed to Montgomery, linking King to their networks in New York-based organizations: the Socialist Party, Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), In Friendship, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and War Resisters League (WRL). The membership-based NAACP still had a role to play, but was too consumed with marching through the courts to light a fire. King rightly figured that the movement needed a church-based organization dedicated to spreading protest like wildfire. After the Montgomery boycott succeeded, he and Rustin, Stanley Levison, and Ella Baker founded the SCLC, stocking it with powerhouse preachers. 

King relied on Rustin and Levison for ghostwriting, networking, and advice; he hired Baker to run the office. Rustin, Levison, and Baker were veterans of the Old Left who fondly remembered how the CIO unions used strikes, boycotts, and marches to make gains for economic justice. They were also chastened by this history because the Old Left strategy of fusing anti-racism with unions and socialism failed in the 1940s. SCLC was a second chance, notwithstanding that Rustin was a socialist Quaker, Levison was a Jewish socialist former Communist, and Baker’s experience of the Black church made her averse to charismatic preachers. The SCLC ministers and board members did not like King’s reliance on Rustin, Levison, and Baker. King was emphatic about needing them.

King took in stride that Rustin, Levison and Baker had Leftist backgrounds. It was one of God’s mysteries why so many Communists and so few White liberals cared about black Americans. King’s seminary training in the social gospel converted him to Social Democratic socialism—economic democracy, anti-communism, and a mixed economy. He had studied Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr in seminary. His Black social gospel role models—Benjamin E. Mays, Mordecai Johnson, J. Pius Barbour, Howard Thurman, and James Farmer—were Rauschenbusch democratic socialists. His dean at Boston University, Walter Muelder, was a Rauschenbusch socialist. Rauschenbusch’s classic work, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), taught them that the church has a mission to transform social structures in the direction of social justice and that political democracy cannot survive without economic democracy. Johnson, Barbour, and Mays cited Rauschenbusch from memory on this subject, while King added Niebuhr’s critique that Rauschenbusch and the social gospel over-relied on ethical idealism to achieve a just society. 

For a while, SCLC floundered as King became famous. Montgomery focused on a singularly effective issue, busing, but city governments shrewdly defused that issue by allowing integrated buses.  Meanwhile, King’s celebrity and fundraising kept the organization alive. King was sensitive and peaceable; it repulsed him to imagine that he would get people killed. It took the student sit-in explosion of 1960 and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to push King into actual Gandhian disruption. King decided he needed to raise hell in the most hostile cities he could find, so he selected lieutenants who were willing to do it. SCLC became a fire-alarm outfit relying on street theater and heroic agitation. It was long on charismatic male ministers who did not treat their female allies with the respect they deserved, and King was no exception. MLK was every bit as chauvinistic as the Baptist preacher culture he came from, and his wife Coretta Scott King suffered for it. Baker thus ended up advising SNCC. But both organizations stoked protest wildfire in ways that King’s leadership inspired. 

King had a barrel of sermons on the hope of a regenerated society before Montgomery erupted. After the movement whirlwind swept him away, he riffed on these sermons for the rest of his life, preaching that the divine commonwealth is best rendered as “the beloved community” and that freedom has no reality apart from power. Power is integral to hope and liberation, integration requires equal access to political and economic power, and freedom is participation in power. To King, the goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to transform the lack of power of Black Americans into creative, vital, interpersonal, organized power. All could be free, but only if all were empowered to participate. Freedom and integration went together to build the beloved community, a universal goal embracing all peoples and nations. 

Rustin and Michael Harrington were drinking buddies and socialist comrades. A native of St. Louis and a brilliant speaker and writer, Harrington led the youth division (Young Socialist League) of Max Shachtman’s International Socialist League (ISL). He implored Old Left veterans that the Civil Rights Movement was the Social Force of its time and moved into the Socialist Party in 1958 with the Shachtmanites. He put it personally to Old Left Marxists and Norman Thomas Socialists: King was the star of the next great surge and all progressives had to get with it. 

At the Democratic Convention of 1960 in Los Angeles, Harrington joined teams with California entertainment lawyer Clarence Jones to organize a civil rights march. He admired King’s extraordinary calm amid constant demands, telephone interruptions, and movement drama. King told Harrington he was leaning toward supporting John Kennedy, and Harrington begged him not to help Kennedy prematurely. When their conversation  turned to political philosophy, Harrington gasped at realizing that King was a flat-out democratic socialist. He was not merely influenced by Rauschenbusch and Rustin; his worldview was socialist. The conversation made Harrington anxious, mixed with a flash of ideological pride. It thrilled him to realize that King was a comrade, but this could not get out. 

From 1960 to the end, King got angrier and more radical every succeeding year. His great demonstration in Birmingham was slow to catch fire, saved by marching children, and nearly ended disastrously, but caused Kennedy to propose the Civil Rights Act. The campaign in St. Augustine was a bloodbath that ended badly, but helped spur the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In 1964, Alex Haley asked King what his biggest mistake had been. King said it was overestimating the spiritual integrity of White ministers. The essence of Christianity, he said, is to rejoice at being deemed worthy to suffer for the divine good. The social gospel is “the true witness of a Christian life.” Haley asked if Black churches did better at projecting a social gospel and King hedged on “no.” It was always difficult to mobilize Black ministers because they didn’t like movements they didn’t organize, and most had no experience with movement activism. Many just wanted to preach about heaven. But King stressed that Black churches dealt with daily threats to their existence that whites couldn’t imagine. There was no basis for comparison. 

King took the struggle North, where racism was structural and threefold in every city. Segregated housing yielded segregated schools, and segregated housing and schools hurt Black Americans in the job market. SCLC was battered viciously in Chicago, and King struggled not to say that a racist backlash was raging in the USA, since nearly every use of this term blamed him for it. In 1966 he told the SCLC, “The white man literally sought to annihilate the Indian. If you look through the history of the world this very seldom happened.” This was what Black Americans were up against; so called “backlash talk” was superficial. The following year, in his last book, Where Do We Go from Here, King finally said that obviously a backlash was raging across the United States, even though racial hostility had always been there. It had never been otherwise. The movement brought this hostility to the surface. Coping with that reality was, and is, a spiritual discipline. 

In his last Christmas sermon, King made his usual vow to endure suffering, respond to violence with soul force, and love the oppressors. But now he said it by counter-posing the dream and the nightmare, invoking the nightmares of the four church girls murdered in Birmingham, the miserable poverty of urban neighborhoods, American cities on fire, and the war in Vietnam. At the end, King was unfathomably exhausted and depressed, living on the edge of despair, but dared not give up hope: “Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life.” 

King could imagine a US American nation that acknowledges its crimes, compels every American to learn about them in school, passes a reparations bill, and builds a generous, hospitable, multi-racial social democracy. But he was scathing and specific about what was needed and what was lacking. Cornel West rightly delineates four principle and existential sources that shaped King: prophetic Black church Christianity, prophetic liberal Christianity, prophetic Gandhian nonviolence, and prophetic American civil religion. West says that King embodied the best of American Christendom by synthesizing these sources. But this project was not unique to King, for it defines precisely the Black social gospel that influenced King. King stood in a tradition of Black social gospel intellectuals who heard the prophetic gospel in the Black church, appropriated social gospel liberalism, engaged the Gandhian revolution, and called America to stop betraying its vaunted ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality.

The weakest link in this chain was the one that white America lifted up after King was gone: King the dreamer who called America to its own creed. King himself played down this trope in his later life, as it did not comport very well with the surging tide of Black anger that he shared with the Black Power movement. It became even more problematic as soon as King was gone. The more that White liberals embraced King as a hero, the more ambiguous he became for Black Americans still denigrated by white society. It became hard to remember that King was radical, militant, and angry. 

Near the end he doubled down on the path of public sacrifice. As a child, he sang that he wanted to be more and more like Jesus. In his last years he got very close to it. King told the SCLC staff, “When I took up the Cross, I recognized its meaning. The Cross is something that you bear, and ultimately that you die on.” The Poor People’s Campaign topped King’s previous forays into risky, controversial, chaotic protest. His lieutenants protested that creating a spectacle mess in the nation’s capital would damage the Civil Rights Movement and ruin their chance of obtaining a housing bill. Now he outflanked even James Bevel, his usual barometer of going too far. King did not claim that he had the political angles figured; maybe his lieutenants were right about the politics. He didn’t know where this was heading politically. He only knew what he needed to do, and with whom he needed to be. 

In the 1980s, King scholars began to claim that personal idealism — his philosophy of personality and sacred human dignity — was not worth the importance that King vested in it. They had two good reasons, one bad reason, and two that were mixed. Commendably, they emphasized King’s Black church upbringing and the influence of Niebuhr on him. Not commendably, some denigrated King’s intellectual seriousness and character to fashion a later King they respected, claiming that King never really cared about religious philosophy or any such thing. He just played along in graduate school to get the degree, and later he pretended that he still cared about personalism. David Garrow pioneered a school of interpretation contending that the early King was a shallow hedonist who only got serious after the Montgomery boycott yielded death threats and his mystical kitchen experience. Revelations about King’s promiscuity and plagiarism opened a floodgate of criticism, both justified and not. Many repeated the Garrow claim about pre-Montgomery shallowness; King’s teachers were pilloried unfairly for passing a flawed dissertation; and Taylor Branch described King’s Gandhian nonviolence as mere window dressing for the Civil Rights Movement. Garrow and Branch wrote monumental works that were mostly superb, except for the denigrating revisionist thread. Some scholars who built upon Garrow and Branch rightly emphasized that the later King was radical and angry, while assuming wrongly that personal idealists cannot be radical and angry. 

Here I linger for a moment only over Branch, who claimed that King was too influenced by Niebuhr to be serious about nonviolence as a way of life. On this telling, King adopted Gandhi’s method only on Niebuhr’s tactical terms as a stratagem of power; his appropriation of Gandhi was mostly a public relations ploy to instill a public impression of moral seriousness. I believe King was far more deeply devoted to nonviolence than Branch portrayed. MLK took as much as he could get out of nonviolence without treating it as a set of absolute principles. He never argued in the fashion of applying an absolute pacifist principle to a situation. He said he was committed to finding how far nonviolence could take him, knowing that violence is corrupting, vicious, ungodly, and futile.

Despair, King said to the end, never sustains any revolution. Liberation and integration go together because power must be shared in a just society. Justice is precisely the sharing of power. King believed that most Black Americans agreed with him about nonviolence, but even if they did not, he believed in it. Most leaders conform to whatever happens to be. King had no interest in that. For him it was convictional leadership or bust. He said that nonviolence was a burning fire in him, a conviction so precious and powerful he would stand on it until his dying breath.  

Democratic socialism, which was central to King’s political philosophy, explodes the dreamy-liberal King of the MLK holiday. If one has to have a secular socialism to teach King in the academy, one might conceivably line out the relation of King’s socialism to European social democracy, Du Bois, and anti-colonialism. One might connect this line to secular socialists in King’s inner circle such as Harrington, Levison, and O’Dell, and to light-on-religion socialists Thomas, Randolph, and Farmer. Perhaps smuggle Rustin into the latter group. But there is no getting around that King’s socialism was fundamentally Christian and that it came to him straight from the Black and White social gospel traditions. It mattered greatly to King that Mays, Johnson, and Barbour were Rauschenbusch socialists, and so was Muelder. It even mattered to him that middle-phase Niebuhr was a socialist. King took for granted that every social justice struggle has an economic component and that liberalism would never achieve economic justice. In his last years he called for a revolution of values, a minimum guaranteed income, and a movement of the poor crossing racial lines, while chafing that he could not say exactly what he meant.

King described African Americans as a creative minority perched between their marginal status in the traditions of US American democracy and their fragile solidarity with nonwhite peoples around the world. This trope radiates through the decades to contemporary classrooms. I have seen classes burst alive when surprised students learn that King talked this way. But this was a main trope of the Black social gospel tradition, especially its socialist stream. So was the verdict from it that King invoked: African Americans are bearers of the spiritual dynamic that a sick Western civilization needs to survive. If White America has any hope of being cured of its spiritual sickness, it must look in the last place it would expect to find deliverance. 

Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, which won the Grawemeyer Award, and Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, which won the American Library Association Award. His most recent books are American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion, and Theory (Yale University Press, 2021), The Spirit of American Liberal Theology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2023), and A Darkly Radiant Vision: The Black Social Gospel in the Shadow of MLK (Yale University Press, 2023).

Photo Credit: Unseen Histories on Unsplash


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