Martin Luther King Jr. has come to be revered as a hero who led a nonviolent struggle to reform and redeem the United States. His birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. Tributes are paid to him on his death anniversary each April, and his legacy is honored in multiple ways.
But from my perspective as a historian of religion and civil rights, the true radicalism of his thought remains underappreciated. The “civil saint” portrayed nowadays was, by the end of his life, a social and economic radical, who argued forcefully for the necessity of economic justice in the pursuit of racial equality.
Three particular works from 1957 to 1967 illustrate how King’s political thought evolved from a hopeful reformer to a radical critic.
King’s support for white moderates
For much of the 1950s, King believed that white southern ministers could provide moral leadership. He thought the white racists of the South could be countered by the ministers who took a stand for equality. At the time, his concern with economic justice was a secondary theme in his addresses and political advocacy.
Speaking at Vanderbilt University in 1957, he professed his belief that “there is in the white South more open-minded moderates than appears on the surface.” He urged them to lead the region through its necessary transition to equal treatment for black citizens. He reassured all that the aim of the movement was not to “defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
King had hope for this vision. He had worked with white liberals such as Myles Horton, the leader of a center in Tennessee for training labor and civil rights organizers. King had developed friendships and crucial alliances with white supporters in other parts of the country as well. His vision was for the fulfillment of basic American ideals of liberty and equality.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
By the early 1960s, at the peak of the civil rights movement, King’s views had evolved significantly. In early 1963, King came to Birmingham to lead a campaign for civil rights in a city known for its history of racial violence.
During the Birmingham campaign, in April 1963, he issued a masterful public letter explaining the motivations behind his crusade. It stands in striking contrast with his hopeful 1957 sermon.