In the 1950s King told his fiancée Coretta Scott, “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” Such views were not simply a product of youth, and he continued to believe accordingly. In a 1965 talk to the Negro American Labor Council (often overlooked, King had strong and important relationships with the labor movement), King bluntly observed, “there must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. “ A year later he explained that solving the “economic problem of the Negro” would involve “billions of dollars.” You can’t end slums, he added, without “profit . . . be[ing] taken out of the slums. But if you do that, “you’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground . . . You are messing with captains of Industry.” To do this would be tread “in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism.”
In August, 1967 King delivered one of his more important addresses to the SCLC Convention. Titled, “Where Do We Go From Here” (and the basis of a book with the same title), he showed that his analysis had moved beyond race in the South to class and capitalism nationally:
I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” that we honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked.
After the Civil and Voting Rights Acts went into effect after 1965 and the southern apartheid regime was finally being dismantled, King’s focus on inequality and the economy changed his standing in America and would become his undoing (see Poor People’s Movement below) as liberals, who’d supported him when he was seeking inclusion in the American system for Blacks in the South, now began to abandon him when he spoke of the greater problem of material injustice for Blacks and inequality for all poor people all over America. The Civil Rights campaigns sought jobs along with justice, but never challenged the structure of capitalism; rather they sought to include 15 million or so Blacks in the American economy—as investors, workers, and consumers. But King’s rejection of capitalism, along with his global notoriety as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and his popularity among the poor, made him a threat to all segments of the ruling elite, not just southern politicians and bigots.