Racism has been a major social problem in American history going back to the colonial period of the 17th and 18th Centuries, and by no means only in the former slave states of the South. In fact, the condition of blacks in the United States has always been a central social, political and economic problem that resulted in the nation's most destructive war in 1861-65 and in its most important civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. As the moral and spiritual leader of the latter, Martin Luther King's place in American history is well-known: this was the central preoccupation of his life from 1955-68, and he died as a martyr to this cause. Karl Marx was merely a foreign observer of the U.S. Civil War, but he understood the issues of slavery and racism very well and was an enthusiastic abolitionist and supporter of the Northern cause. From his ideological viewpoint, the capitalist civilization of the North was more modern and progressive than the feudal system of the South, and he wrote numerous articles calling for the emancipation of the blacks and opposing racism against them. Although Marx accepted the necessity of war and violent revolution in history while King was a pacifist and follower of Mahatma Gandhi, both were socialists who understood the civil rights and voting rights would not necessarily bring social and economic advancement for the oppressed. Both were also perfectly capable of using a wide variety of methods to advance their cause, including lobbying, coalition politics, supporting labor organizations and propaganda.
As a Jew, Marx understood all too well the sense of being an outsider and outcast in Western Christian civilization, and the feeling of merely existing on its margins. By German standards, he was considered "dark" and his nickname was the "Moor." Even his young wife's letters expressed admiration for his "exotic darkness" (Gilman, 1999, p. 38). This 'darkness' or 'blackness' was always a "constant sign of his 'Jewishness' by his lover, his friends and his enemies." Rather than being a blond-haired, blue-eyed German, he had the complexion and features that set him off as a foreigner and outsider, even though his parents had converted to Christianity and he had no religion of any kind. At times, he even thought of himself as a "white Negro," and regarded all other Jews as being in the same 'mulatto' category (Gilman, p. 39).
Karl Marx has not exactly been remembered by history for his writings about slavery and racism, or even about the United States at all, but in reality he was extremely interested in the American Civil War and an outspoken supporter of abolitionism and the antislavery cause. From the Marxist perspective, the industrial capitalist North was the more advanced civilization than the feudal, slaveholding South and the forces of history were on its side. For Marx, of course, the ultimate emancipation of the working class was the primary goal of socialism and communism, and as slaves blacks in the Americas were the most oppressed and exploited workers of all. He described the Emancipation Proclamation as "the most important document in American history, tantamount to tearing up the old American Constitution." Although Lincoln had not been elected in 1860 as an abolitionist and indeed he could not have been elected on that basis. By 1862, though, the Republicans were running as an abolitionist party. Almost in spite of himself, Lincoln had been placed at the head of one of the most important transformational movements in history, and Marx wrote that through the genius on universal suffrage in America "ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world!" (Marx, October 12, 1862).
Marx was correct in comparing the Democratic Party to the British Tories, since up to its split in 1860 it was led by the Southern planters and aristocrats, although like the English Conservatives it also had a following among small farmers and laborers, while the Whigs and Republicans were obviously a liberal party that represented the rising capitalist class and its self-made men like the lawyer Abraham Lincoln. So Marx regarded the Civil War as a conflict between capitalism and feudalism, although he regarded the liberation of the slaves as central to the conflict and the key to victory for the North. He also knew that New York City was the center of the cotton trade and the illegal trade in slaves from Africa, as well as "the seat of the American money market and full of holders of mortgages on Southern plantations." It was a Tory-mercantile city like Liverpool rather than an industrial city dominated by the new middle class and working class. In New York, the Irish immigrant workers regarded "the Negro as a dangerous competitor," and so it long remained among the white immigrant working class, while the small farmers of the Midwest hated "the Negro almost as much as the slaveholder" (Marx, November 23, 1862).
In addressing the National Bar Association in 1959, Martin Luther King explained his views on history, which were not so far removed from those of Marx. For blacks, the first and longest era of American history was that of slavery in 1619-1863, in which the slave was "a thing to be used rather than a person to be respected" and a "depersonalized cog in a vast plantation machine" (King, 1959, p. 265). In the Dred Scott case of 1857, the Supreme Court even declared that blacks were not human beings at all but a form of moveable property. An era of "restricted emancipation" followed slavery from 1863 to 1954 in which blacks were no longer slaves, but still lacked equal social, political and civil rights. In the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, the Supreme Court upheld segregation and 'separate but equal' facilities, and this remained the law of the land until the Supreme Court overturned it in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. As King stated, segregation really was "at bottom a form of slavery covered up with certain niceties" (King, p. 265). Even so, a third era of equality and integration had opened in 1954, although King would have agreed with Marx that progress was never "an automatic phenomenon that can emerge without human effort" (King, p. 267). Both King and Marx stated repeatedly and emphatically that history did not work in such a naive and deterministic way, and that real change had to be fought for by human beings. For King, progress would require further efforts in the courts, more funding for civil rights organizations and nonviolent protests, intervention by the federal government, and cooperation with religious, labor and liberal organizations. He also called on President Dwight Eisenhower to take a clear moral stand on civil rights -- which never happened -- although his efforts with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were more successful. King did not really expect white racists to have a change of heart any more than Marx would have expected them to voluntarily free their slaves. As King put it in 1959, "morals cannot be legislated, but behavior can be legislated" (King, p. 268). No law could make blacks love whites, but it could prevent them from discriminating against them in jobs, housing, education and voting rights. Indeed, it was "am immoral act to compel a man to accept injustice until another man's heart is straight" (King, p. 268).
Karl Marx assumed that violent revolution and class warfare were necessary to bring about social and political change, while Martin Luther King followed the principles of nonviolent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi. Of course, the differences between the two can be overdrawn since King was also a socialist and understood very well that ending segregation and guaranteeing voting rights alone would not improve the social and economic conditions of blacks. After all, blacks had been able to vote in the North since 1870 yet the majority still lived in poverty as late as the 1960s. King used other tools besides demonstrations, sit-ins and filling the jails with protesters as well. He and other civil rights leaders frequently turned to the federal courts, for example, as well as lobbying in Congress, the White House and the federal bureaucracies. They formed coalitions with organized labor, religious groups and white liberals and leftists in the North to advance the cause of civil rights. Marx certainly understood and accepted these nonviolent methods as well, and supported the efforts of workers and other oppressed groups to organize labor unions and political parties wherever they could. One major reason that he also advocated violence was that in his time, there were so few democratic governments in the world apart from Britain and the United States that peaceful methods seemed futile. In most nations, there were no representative institutions of any kind and workers did not have voting rights: they were almost as marginalized as black slaves in the South. In Britain and the U.S. where workers could vote and…