In commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Peniel E. Joseph, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, said in a 2014 article:
King emerges as a talented individual whose rhetorical genius at the March on Washington helped elevate an entire nation through his moral power and sheer force of will.
The March on Washington was when King delivered his famous 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. Joseph goes on:
Yet missing from many of the annual King celebrations is the portrait of a political revolutionary who, over time, evolved into a radical warrior for peace, justice and the eradication of poverty. During his last three years, King the “Dreamer” turned into one of the most eloquent, powerful and scathing critics of American society. King lent his moral force and power to anti-poverty crusades that questioned the economic system of capitalism and called for an end to the Vietnam War. . . . King’s powerful rage against economic exploitation and war is often overlooked when we think of him as only a race-healer.
The "moral power" of King's famous "Dream" speech in Washington was actually the moral power of the Founding Fathers resurrected. In that speech, King reminded Americans of the ideals laid down in the Declaration of Independence—the philosophic blueprint for the constitution and the new nation—and called on Americans to fully live up to those ideals. “In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check,” King said.
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
Yet, King's Dream was to be corrupted by an inner contradiction. In his later years, King questioned the legitimacy of capitalism and turned to what he termed "democratic socialism," a hybrid of two evil systems (democracy and socialism) that repudiates the very ideals he espoused in his speech. Therein lies one of the great American paradoxes—the clash between King the moral force and King the political revolutionary.
When the Founders drafted the Declaration of Independence, they laid down the radical principles that would give birth to capitalism. These 55 brilliant words—the opening lines of the second paragraph of the Declaration—sum up the essence of capitalism:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . .
When King reaffirmed those ideals—that all men are created equal, possessing inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness protected equally and at all times under a government of objective law rather than of men—he was really, though apparently unwittingly, affirming the foundational principles of capitalism.
Capitalism is the system based on individual rights, rights-protecting government and the only kind of equality consistent with justice—equality of individual rights before the law. Because of these principles, Capitalism is the only social system that banishes exploitation and war, because individual rights banishes aggressive or initiatory force from human relationships—particularly aggressive force by government against the people. Under capitalism, exploitation is replaced with voluntary trade to mutual benefit among individuals, a win-win in which individuals trade value-for-value and get better together. Capitalism liberates every individual to think and act on his own judgement and work to lift himself from poverty, and protects those who take up that life-affirming challenge from would-be exploiters who don’t. And under capitalism, war is replaced with peaceful coexistence among nations based on that principle of trade.
So why would King uphold the moral principles of capitalism in his most famous speech while repudiating it in his politics? It's obvious that King didn't understand capitalism or fully grasp the moral implications of the Declaration of Independence that he so eloquently honored.
He undoubtedly viewed the America of the 1960s as capitalist, when in fact what America had was a mixed economy; a mixture of economic freedom and government controls—that is to say, an economy corrupted by heavy political interference, which included the virulently anti-capitalist Jim Crow segrgation laws. America in the 1960s was just emerging from a time when large segments of blacks were legally oppressed and hence unable to enjoy “the riches of freedom and the security of justice” that is capitalism. Blacks, King failed to understand, were not victims of capitalism but of statism.
King’s legacy includes an end to state-sponsored segregation and oppression—a monumental achievement. But his democratic socialist political policies also “succeeded,” strengthening and entrenching the mixed economy in America, which he mistakenly perceived as capitalism—the result being, in turn, to reduce economic opportunities for many poor but ambitious people, including African-Americans.
To his credit, King explicitly opposed full-blown socialism, which he believed leads to communism, a system that he correctly understood "forgets that life is individual." But he wrongly believed that "Capitalism forgets that life is social," leading him to his hybrid democratic socialism. He failed to see that capitalism, by leaving individuals free to pursue their own values in the absence of physical coercion, provides the only proper moral foundation for both individual flourishing and robust benevolent social interaction—the moral foundation implicit in the Declaration of Independence, rational egoism.
Thus is the paradox of Martin Luther King.
Commentators like Joseph urge us to elevate his politics to at least the level of his ideals. That, of course, would be an impossible contradictions. But ideas are where the real power lies. Since ideas are the driving force of human events, Martin Luther King, despite his politics, remains one of my heroes. Standing in a line that includes John Locke, the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and Ayn Rand, among others, King reaffirmed America's Founding ideals at a crucial point in American history. That, to me, is his real legacy contribution to America. For that, I am grateful to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
HAPPY MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY!!
The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty—Timothy Sandefur
Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal—Ayn Rand