Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Socialist Party

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New Zeal

Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on August 28, 1963. It culminated in a gathering at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

According to Boston Democratic Socialists of America publication Yankee Radical, September/October 2010 page 3, the Socialist Party USA played a major, but covert, role in Martin Luther King’s greatest moment of glory.

Several Socialist Party members played key roles in organizing the march, including A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Tom Kahn, Rachelle Horowitz and Norm Hill.

King himself was in the Socialist Party in Boston during his student days in the early 1950s, according to then Socialist Party member, now D.S.A. leader, Bogdan Denitch.

If anything, one aspect of the 1963 rally, deliberately down-played at the time for fear of red-baiting, was the influence of members of the Socialist Party, DSA’s major predecessor organization, in both organizing the event and its politics. This began with A. Philip Randolph, who issued the call for the March and MC’d it, his longtime lieutenant Bayard Rustin, and his key assistants who ran the March organizing office in NY—Tom Kahn, Rachelle Horowitz, Norm Hill and others, SPers all. (According to Honorary DSA Chair Bogdan Denitch, who was in a position to know, Martin Luther King himself was briefly in the Socialist Party in the early 1950s while attending Boston University).

In 2000, Denitch wrote in the Democratic Left Spring/Summer issue:

If I have one fault with Maurice’s (Maurice Isserman‘s biography of Michael Harrington) excellent book, it is the underestimation–which we may have helped ourselves–of the socialist role around Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and in some unions. Because our publicly acknowledged socialist presence would have been the kiss of political death, the basis on which many civil rights activists were often red-baited, our very credible activism as hard-working, key behind the scenes players (with Bayard,) who got things done—is not well known. Mike was the closest we had to a ‘respectable’ public face with oratorical skills, so he got a piece of the credit, but the honorable activity of socialists did a great deal of good, should make DSAers proud of their historical roots, and might well be emulated today.

Very few people today are aware of the large communist and socialist influence that surrounded Martin Luther King.

Interestingly, Martin Luther King’s most prominent biographer, David Garrow, was himself a long time member of Democratic Socialists of America.

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