He also immersed himself in the works of left-wing Protestant theologians, of whom, King noted more than once, Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr were the most important to him. Rauschenbusch, whose 1907 Christianity and the Social Crisis reveals a powerful Marxist influence, proclaimed that “the working class is now engaged in a great historic class struggle which is becoming ever more conscious and bitter,” and that “Socialism is the ultimate and logical outcome of the labor movement.”
Rauschenbusch argued that “the new Christian principle of brotherly association must ally itself with the working class if both are to conquer,” since “the force of religious spirit should be bent toward asserting the supremacy of life over property.” Niebuhr, whose 1932 classic Moral Man and Immoral Society critically integrates not only Marx but even more the “brutal realist” Lenin into what was (in that period) a quite radical version of the “Christian realist” synthesis, approvingly quoted from Lenin’s State and Revolution.
Howard Thurman, who in his 1949 work Jesus and the Disinherited (which influenced King and many others), explains that “the basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.” Thurman added: “The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who long tarries over the facts.”
That Christianity “became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus,” Thurman insists. “His message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people.”
This ran parallel to the earlier assertion of Rauschenbusch that “Jesus proceeded from the common people. He had worked as a carpenter for years and there was nothing in his thinking to neutralize the sense of class solidarity which grows up under such circumstances. The common people heard him gladly because he said what was in their hearts … Jesus was not a mere social reformer … He has been called the first socialist.”
King said: We have the power to change America and give a kind of new vitality to the religion of Jesus Christ … He initiated the first sit-in movement. The greatest revolutionary that history has ever known … You don’t have to go to Karl Marx to learn how to be a revolutionary. I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx; I got it from a man named Jesus, a Galilean saint who said he was anointed to heal the broken-hearted. He was anointed to deal with the problems of the poor. And that is where we get our inspiration. And we go out in a day when we have a message for the world, and we can change this world and we can change this nation.
During his childhood, King—perceiving the effects of the Great Depression—recalled how he questioned his parents “about the numerous people standing in the breadlines,” and reflected over “the effects of this early childhood experience on my present anticapitalistic feelings.” While in his teens he worked for two summers in a factory with a Black and white workforce where “the poor white was exploited just as much as the Negro,” planting the thought that “the inseparable twin of racial justice was economic justice.”