by Peter Dreier
As we celebrate his birthday, it is easy to forget that Rev. Martin Luther King was a democratic socialist.
In 1964, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he observed that the United States could learn much from Scandinavian “democratic socialism.” He often talked about the need to confront “class issues,” which he described as “the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.”
In 1966 King confided to his staff:
“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
In holding these views, King followed in the footsteps of many prominent, influential Americans whose views and activism changed the country for the better. In the 1890s, a socialist Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy, wrote “The Pledge of Allegiance” and a socialist poet, Katherine Lee Bates, penned “America the Beautiful.” King was part of a proud tradition that includes such important 20th century figures as Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, Florence Kelley, John Dewey, Upton Sinclair, Helen Keller, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Walter Reuther.
Today, America’s most prominent democratic socialist is Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Like King, Sanders says that the U.S. should learn from Sweden, Norway and Denmark — countries with greater equality, a higher standard of living for working families, better schools, free universities, less poverty, a cleaner environment, higher voter turnout, stronger unions, universal health insurance, and a much wider safety net. Sounds anti-business? Forbes magazine ranked Denmark as the #1 country for business. The United States ranked #18. Continue reading