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Thomas F Jackson, 'From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice'

University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 978 0 812239 69 0; £16.50; 459pp

Just over a year ago (PN 2497), we suggested there was a convergence of views of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X in their later years, in particular their growing convictions that overcoming class oppression was central to black liberation.

We quoted King in 1966: “something is wrong with capitalism… there must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move towards a Democratic Socialism”; and 1967: “capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves…. We must recognize that the problems of neither racial nor economic justice can be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

From Civil Rights to Human Rights demonstrates that such views were not a late flowering of radicalism, but were always part of King’s thinking, though often muffled for strategic reasons. Thomas Jackson has dug deep through every possible source (including King’s voluminous correspondence) to build up a compelling account of the evolution of King’s thinking on economic and political issues; from the Christian socialism he drank in at college to his later search for a united front with radical unions, and finally the poor people’s crusade he was preparing to launch when he was assassinated.

From Civil Rights to Human Rights really does change the way you look at King. It’s not a comprehensive biography, or a stand-alone account of the black freedom struggle (for a grassroots perspective, I recommend Charles M Payne’s brilliant I’ve Got The Light Of Freedom), but it shows King in a totally new light. The one-dimensional picture of King as a shallow liberal is thoroughly dismantled.

For activists today, struggling with many of the same problems (King’s lamentable attitude to gender issues is also addressed) and puzzling over radical political strategies, this is a valuable and thought-provoking analysis.

Topics: Class | History