Justice  /  Book Review

The Language of the Unheard

A new book rescues the Poor People’s Campaign from its reputation as a desperate last cry of the civil rights movement.
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An examination of King’s ideological foundations forms a large part of Laurent’s book. She acknowledges that his ideological worldview cannot be easily pinned down: It was not just socialist or Christian or anti-imperialist; often it was all three at once and tending to draw from a medley of different sources, centered on the potential of American democracy and his principled stance against racism and imperialism in American society. King also had a loosely socialist analysis of American inequality that became more pronounced as the years went on. While he was not what Laurent calls a “procommunist Marxist,” he did use a Marxist analysis of political economy to build his critique of capitalism in the United States and to understand the ways race relations had been formed in the South.

King’s socialism influenced his answer to the problem of racial inequality in America, too. A reckoning with racism, he insisted, was impossible without radically redistributing wealth and, by extension, power in American society. His analysis of the riots of the mid- to late ’60s, which took place primarily in Northern and Midwestern cities, cemented this argument for him. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” King insisted at the height of that “long, hot summer”: For him, race, class, and economic empowerment were therefore all intertwined in these urban rebellions. Civil rights and voting rights were critical for African Americans, but King recognized that in places outside the South, where African Americans had practiced the power of the ballot for decades, economic power was also a necessity for black emancipation.

Historians have long contended that King’s left turn, coming in the late 1960s, marked a radical break from his more liberal and integrationist politics in the 1950s and early to mid-’60s. But Laurent compellingly shows how King’s increasingly outspoken views on economic inequality were simply a case of him making public the views that he already held privately and that he felt he could no longer keep private after years of witnessing the appalling poverty in both urban Chicago and rural Mississippi. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King was already insisting that it was only the first stage in the struggle for black freedom. Without a frontal attack on economic inequality, political and civil rights were not enough.

By offering a prehistory of King’s economic politics, Laurent convincingly demonstrates how thinkers like Du Bois and Randolph influenced King and how their critiques of American capitalism flowed from even older intellectual and political traditions that were at the bedrock of black politics.