Martin Luther King: Communist Subversive!
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 09:27:34 AM EST

In the 1960s right-wing conspiracist groups and racists attacked the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement as puppets of the communists. This was not only false, but deflected attention from the legitimate demands for racial justice and the need for laws protecting the Civil Rights already guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

The claim was based on the guilt-by-association claim that anyone who attended a meeting where a communist was present was either a puppet of the communist conspiracy or a dupe of the communist conspiracy.

Today, right-wing demagogues such as Glenn Beck spin conspiracy theories about a collectivist/socialist threat to the nation posed by another Black man, President Barack Obama, and his allies on the Left. These right-wing pundits demonize specific targets that not only include groups and individuals struggling for racial justice, but also struggling for a fair economic system and peace--the same trio of issues listed by King in his 1967 speech at the Riverside Church. There, King spoke of the need to “go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

The section of the flyer below, titled "Martin Luther King, Jr. At Communist Training School" included a large photograph at the top showing King at the progressive Highlander Center.

Front of the anti-King flyer
Front of the anti-King flyer   Back of the anti-King flyer

The Red Menace was said to be plotting a one-world-government.

  The Red Network

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was linked by rightists to Marxism, socialism, and communism.

  The Roosevelt Red Record and its Background

Progressive movements in the 1960s and 1970s were frequently claimed to be part of a socialist/communist/Masonic plot.

  None Dare Call it Conspiracy

The John Birch Society circulates book about the vast collectivist/socialist/Freemason conspiracy.

  John Birch Society book order form

Many of the anti-progressive conspiracy theories spewed by Glenn Beck previously appeared in John Birch Society publications.

The circulation by right-wing demagogues like Glenn Beck of conspiracy theories about treachery and subversion by liberals and leftists mimics the rhetoric of the Witch Hunts during the Red Scare and McCarthy Period. Some of us have started calling this destructive process the “becking” of America. I wrote about the Witch Hunt against President Obama for In These Times. Naturally, I got Red-Baited by rightists. My much longer study of the current campaign of spreading right-wing conspiracy theories to attack President Obama is in this paper presented at a scholarly conference. (its a long pdf file)

For several years Matthew Rothschild of the Progressive Magazine has been writing" McCarthyism Watch" columns about the spread of histrionic claims of subversion into forms of government repression.

The “Red-Baiting” of President Obama by Glenn Beck and other right-wing demagogues reflects the same attempt to hold back the struggle for equality, economic justice, and peace that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said were the most important issues of our time.

View the front of the anti-King Flyer

View the back of the anti-King Flyer


In the 1970's and 1980's some Latin American Liberation Theologians utilized Marx's understanding of exploitation to inform their reading of Scripture's call for righteousness, justice, and an end to oppression. This gave the Reagan and Bush I regimes the "hook" they needed to justify supporting murderous regimes in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, et al ~ by killing priests and nuns who worked with the poor to struggle for a better life, they were "fighting communism."

by MLouise on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 12:23:31 PM EST
The issue is not if you embrace communism (I don't), but how anti-communism and Red Baiting have been used by right-wing demagogues to crush movements for social and economic justice.  I am a Christian who agrees with the ideas of the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology; and I am a member of Democratic Socialists of America along with Barbara Ehrenreich, Cornel West, Gloria Steinem, and Frances Fox Piven. See the names of some of my other colleagues here:

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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 01:04:06 PM EST

The prophets and Jesus were well aware that misery was usually caused by exploitation and abuse by the rich/powerful/elites of society.  One of the things that gets me is that the dominionists and fundamentalists (and all others of that type of ilk) focus on only a few - less than five for the most part - scriptures, and ignore all the lines of scripture that denounce the rich and powerful for exploiting the poor.

People tend to forget that Marx was concerned about the 'common' person, and opposed to the abuse and exploitation that the Bible denounced.  I think that the Liberation theologians actually looked at the Bible and Jesus' words, and realized just how out of whack the churches had become.

Karl Marx was talking from observation and experience when he said that religion was the opiate of the people.  He observed how the rich and powerful had twisted the Gospel into the travesty we usually hear today - submission to power and authority, "God shows his approval by blessing those who are Godly and shows his disapproval of sin by punishing people with hardship and poverty", hatred preached against people because of only five lines of scripture (the "gotcha verses"), and so on.

I've often said that one of the biggest problems with "Christianity" (the version generally preached and practiced) is that there is a dearth of REAL Biblical scholarship, and people don't take the time to look at the scriptures and their setting as they should.  If they did, they'd reject a literal interpretation in a heartbeat, and be more liberal in viewpoint.  I believe very firmly that the Bible, especially when you examine and study it seriously, strongly supports liberation theology and contradicts the usual "submission" preaching.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 02:17:51 PM EST

Yes, of course Sobrino, Romero, Ellacuria, and others of like mind started from Scripture. Even preaching on the Magnificat was dangerous and subversive during the Salvadoran civil war. But the authorities couldn't ban it completely because it is one of the set canticles in the Vespers liturgy. What I was saying is that they also utilized some of Marx's analysis to help their students and parishoners understand the reality of their lives, and thus were vulnerable to being labeled "communist" by those who viewed campesinos as little more than slave labor.

by MLouise on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 05:36:50 PM EST

we live in!  The ideological heir of those that baited MLK Jr as a communist now proclaims him a person to be emulated and talks about him all the time!!! tml tz

"I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair" - JFK, Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association
by hardindr on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 01:15:48 PM EST

I was hoping someone would point out this irony
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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 01:31:50 PM EST
However, I think Beck simply doesn't understand the contradictions inherent in his worldview and his fervor for King.  He is not a very deep thinker, just a slick marketer and self-promoter.  He has also (at least on the surface) thrown Skousen under the bus.

"I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair" - JFK, Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association
by hardindr on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 01:48:20 PM EST

Beck with the blessing of Fox News held a major rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the I Have a Dream Speech. That is because the Religious Right and its secular co-belligerents have had, and continue to have, a problem.  

Conservatives were on the wrong side or on the sidelines of perhaps the greatest moral issue of the age. It drives them crazy because they cannot assume the mantle of moral authority as long as the martyred MLK is understood as a progressive on a wide range of matters of basic justice. Various elements of the Right are working at cross purposes. Some seek to discredit King. Others seek to neutralize his legacy. Others are trying to coopt him. Some do all of the above at various times.

In the 90s, Ralph Reed went to great lengths to try to acknowledge the failure of conservatives on race, as did the Promise Keepers in order to wipe the 400 year slate clean as if the conservative movement and its icons bore no responsibility for the conditions that made the civil rights movement necessary, and as if the entire matter were about skin color alone. The conservatives have worked hard to try to redefine MLK and even to cast him as one of theirs.  It is an important part of their long term strategy. That said, many contemporary conservatives respect and admire King for at least some of the right reasons, even as they fear and loathe other aspects of his vision, life and legacy.

All this brings us around to Beck, who whatever his actual views and whatever else he may be, is an employee of Fox News who is surrounded by squads of writers and producers who also work for Fox News and do what they are paid to do. The message evolves over time.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Jan 19, 2011 at 10:27:35 AM EST

Black Hollywood leaders have a documentary about such.  In the story Jackie Robinson goes before Congress to refute the idea that Black people in America would rather join the Soviet Union in an attack on the United States. While I was in the South most folks there I met still believe King is a Communist.

by wilkyjr on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 03:47:50 PM EST
I've heard "King was a communist" within the last couple of months, and the speaker was serious.  I don't remember where, however.

It's a common sentiment in this area.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 03:57:13 PM EST

I recognize now how weak the claims against MLK are. The FBI report is written as a screed rather than a report of an investigation.
"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." - Sinclair Lewis
by colinski on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 03:53:23 PM EST

While extreme right claims about MLK Jr. "attending" what they describe as a "Communist training school" (Highlander Folk School) can be refuted (see my report link below), it is, nevertheless, not accurate to completely dismiss the basis for claiming that MLK Jr. was under the influence of actual communists -- such as Stanley Levison. HFS report: In addition, even MLK Jr.'s father acknowledged that his son accepted Marxist interpretations of our society so, naturally, one should investigate the exact extent to which those ideas influenced MLK Jr.'s willingness to accept counsel from CPUSA members and sympathizers. One of the more careful discussions about this matter is by historian Adam Fairclough. See: "Was Martin Luther King a Marxist?" in History Worshop, Spring 1983, pp 117-125

by ernie1241 on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 10:33:01 AM EST
I am disputing the guilt-by-association premise that this fact made MLK a puppet of commuist ideology.  He also got advice from Jews and at least one gay man.  This did not make MLK Jewish or gay.
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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 10:53:41 AM EST

Think about it!!!

I laugh when I hear the cries of "Marxism", "Socialism", and "Communism".  Most people don't know what they're talking about!  Marx's theories extend far beyond economics!

There are still communists to be found (and they aren't as frequent on campuses and among faculty as people would like to believe), but one thing that most people don't realize is just how dated -out of date- communism is.  Social science theory and thought has progressed far beyond Marx, who belongs to the 1800s (he died in 1883).  The sad thing is that most people haven't really studied Marx and don't know how much he's contributed to the sciences - many of the core thoughts were conceived by him (base or structure and superstructure to name one).  

The fact is, while some of his thinking was in error, for the most part his ideas and observations have proved to be valid, especially when it comes to things like exploitation and conflict.  The very things that MLK was facing and which we face today are best explained by aspects of the conflict perspective (or various forms of political economy  and related theoretical frameworks) which developed out of Marx's theories.  

However, social scientists have long progressed far beyond him, and there are strong criticisms of his theory.  Weber correctly pointed out that there is more involved than just economics (a regular criticism of Marxist theories), and he did not observe that religion could be a force against the status quo (and the associated exploitation).  He incorrectly thought that a Communist government would be the penultimate form of government.  He didn't consider the impact of unions on balancing out the abuse and exploitation by the rich.  He didn't consider that some cultures are not conflict-based, but based upon cooperation and where cooperation is the norm.  I could name several other different areas where modern theorists disagree with him.  I myself strongly disagree with economics being the base and ideology being the superstructure - I've argued many times that it is ideology that is the foundation and economics (especially exploitation for gaining wealth) that develops out of beliefs (such as about status and the 'right' to be rich at the expense of others).

Having said that, communists tend to be more observant and notice things like abuse and exploitation, which are rampant even in today's society and which are not inherent in human relations.  Their answer may not be as workable as they think, but they DO have valid criticisms and observations and they do have something to give to this country.  The elites have programmed most of the people in this country to have a knee-jerk reaction to the words "Marx, Socialism, Communism" (and other terms) which keeps people from listening to and recognizing the truth of the things they say.  The elites don't want people to think about their situation and what has been going on in a critical way because that might mean that they (the rich and powerful)  might find their wealth and power limited, even though that would mean ordinary people could have better lives.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 11:52:30 AM EST

As a fuzzy logician, I find the term Marxist to be an ingenious label that's used in order to taint by association rather than accurately portray thinking that originated with the home-grown labor movement that was responding to the working conditions of the time. What's in a name? Well, there were certainly people who had read and embraced Marxist ideas in both the labor and civil rights movements, but the goals of these movements were quite pragmatic and oriented to bread and butter issues and they bore little resemblance to the ideological, authoritarian forms of Marxism that developed elsewhere. Black and white thinkers have difficulty understanding issues that involve complexity and nuance and often regard identity like a label that can be slapped on something. And even a passing acquaintanceship with Marxism is regarded as enough to earn that label from the bifurcatory types. A better way of understanding these issues is through a walks like a duck test, in which resemblance is the question and set membership can come in degrees. MLK was as a much a Marxist as Thomas Jefferson was (and I'm reluctant to give people ideas here). The radical notion that people should be paid for their labor was revolutionary and offensive to 18th century aristocrats, 19th century market fixing robber barons and 20th century segregationists, but it had the virtue of being actually free. Just a segue -- what's interesting is that those on the Right are rarely bothered by authoritarian regimes but are bothered by changes to the economic system that involve franchising workers. Moreover, changes to the economic system that favor capital are considered beneficial by those on the right, despite the hypocritical nature of this belief.
"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." - Sinclair Lewis
by colinski on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 03:16:26 PM EST

"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." - Sinclair Lewis
by colinski on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 03:18:29 PM EST

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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Jan 17, 2011 at 04:48:37 PM EST

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