Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X: Economic Insights and Influences

By Cushman-Wood, Darren | Monthly Review, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X: Economic Insights and Influences


Cushman-Wood, Darren, Monthly Review


When Harris Wofford ran for Senate from the state of Pennsylvania, he invoked the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. The dream, as the Wofford campaign remembered it, was not primarily of a desegregated society but of economic justice in our current health-care crisis.

After the Los Angeles riots Ted Koppel interviewed members of street gangs on ABC's "Night Line." Many of the youth sported baseball caps with a large X on the front while they described the economic conditions of East Central Los Angeles.

Thus do the spirits of Malcolm and Martin still move among us in these times of crisis. The continuing presence of these two figures in the crises of today raise many questions, among which are the questions that will concern us here: How did Malcolm and Martin judge our economic system and what was their hope for our future? What persons, writings, and events shaped their economic thoughts?

Exploring the views of Martin and Malcolm on economics and ethics requires a special perspective. Not only did they not write about the economy in a systematic way, but neither one devoted an entire speech to the subject. Their thoughts on the economy were always embedded in discussions of other topics, such as Vietnam or the United Nations. Because they were speaking to and for the African-American community, topics beyond the scope of normal political economy must be considered. Issues of personal morality and police corruption are areas of economic concern in black communities, given the necessity of "illegal" businesses for the survival of many African American people.(1)

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s early life is central to understanding his economic thoughts as an adult. He was born into the relative security of the black middle class in Atlanta, Georgia, surrounded by the ideas and examples of the black bourgeoisie of his father and Auburn Avenue. When he returned to the South after his doctoral studies at Boston University, it was to a black middle-class congregation, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Martin's differences with his father, however, began with his calling to the ministry in high school. He felt a strong desire to serve humanity, in particular the disinherited he had first seen standing in bread lines during the Great Depression. More than anything he read in college or seminary, it was the black church tradition which shaped his predisposition toward the poor.

While on summer breaks from Morehouse College, from which he graduated at the age of nineteen, he chose to work as a manual laborer. "Daddy" King wanted him to work for black businesses, but Martin refused, feeling called instead to learn about the plight of the African American worker. These summer experiences showed him how blacks were humiliated by white co-workers and foremen and exploited by their bosses.(2)

Such experiences set the stage for his interest in Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel theologian of the early twentieth century at Crozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. King read Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and spent one Christmas break pondering Marx's Capital His first rejection of capitalism was in the seminary. During this period he told a women's church group, "Most of us are not capitalists, we're just potential capitalists." The Reverend J. Pious Barbour knew that he had read Marx and considered Marx's analysis on target. Later in Boston he often complained to Coretta about his father's materialism.(3) One can see in his academic pursuits at Crozier his search to articulate his calling to serve humanity. Once he began working against legal segregation in the South, economic issues took a back seat until 1966.

Unlike Martin King, Malcolm Little was born into a poor family. His father, a black Baptist minister, never served a prestigious church or even had a permanent parish. His family was economically devastated by his death. Malcolm recalled that they had been "so hungry we were dizzy" and often ate boiled dandelions. …

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