He never called himself that in public. Cold War red-baiting was still powerful and haunted him even before his rhetoric turned to class. But his organizing was increasingly in that vein and privately he spoke of his support for democratic socialism. He was organizing a Poor People's Campaign and talking about the necessity to build an interracial movement for economic justice.
In this and in many other ways, King was a radical. But, from watching most of the news coverage of the 40th anniversary of King's assassination today, you wouldn't know it. The absence in our collective memory of of King's leftism is just one of the aspects of what Cornell West calls the Santa Clausification of MLK:
He just becomes a nice little old man with a smile with toys in his bag, not a threat to anybody, as if his fundamental commitment to unconditional love and unarmed truth does not bring to bear certain kinds of pressure to a status quo. So the status quo feels so comfortable as though it's a convenient thing to do rather than acknowledge him as to what he was, what the FBI said, "The most dangerous man in America." Why? Because of his fundamental commitment to love and to justice and trying to keep track of the humanity of each and every one of us. [...]
... [I]n the market-driven world in which celebrity status operates in such a way that it tries to diffuse all of the threat and to sugarcoat and deodorize what actually is rather funky.
Kai Wright has a great piece in The American Prospect today that goes through a lot of the rest of King's lost radicalism. On the way in which the white aristocracy used race as a means of maintaining its economic power (read: GOP for the last 40 years):
"The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow," King lectured from the Alabama Capitol steps, following the 1965 march on Selma. "And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man."
On the racism of the segregated Northern Cities:
The central defense Southern segregationists offered when thrust on the national stage was that their Jim Crow was no more of a brute than the North's. King agreed, and in announcing his organization's move into Chicago, he called the North's urban ghettos "a system of internal colonialism not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium." And he named names, pointing to racist unions as one of a dozen institutions conspiring to strip-mine black communities.
On the radical challenge presented by growing materialism and the Vietnam War:
"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
Much has been made, and I have spent a lot of time trying to understand, the absence of a real American Left since the late Sixties. You can talk about the rise of identity politics, the fracturing of the New Deal coalition as a result of Vietnam, the decline of America's manufacturing base, the flight of elites to academia, the rise of the New Right, and as King prophetically notes the ongoing racial divisions that split poor whites from poor blacks in the South (and, it turns out, still in the North). It's not a simple story.
But on today of all days, it's worth considering the fact that one of America's greatest intellectuals and activists, possibly the most powerful leader in the history of the American Left, is remembered condescendingly as a cartoon version of the challenging man he was. As Rich Yeselson put it to me in an email (reprinted here with his permission), "America recuperates everything and everybody within its endless pageant of progress."
There is, of course, something healthy about a nation that creates for itself a narrative of progress. It allows us to have a sense of momentum and make things that were once controversial foundational to future generations. It is, in that sense, a part of perpetuating and solidifying progress made.
In King's case, though, it cut us off from a message that needs to be heard now more than any time since his death.
Source. Oh, and 'cause it's awesome, Ten OTHER Things Martin Luther King Said.
EDIT: Fix'd for Son of HTML Fail.