Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: ‘Socialism for the Rich, Rugged Individualism for the Poor’?

On April 2 2019, Facebook page “The Other 98%” shared a meme (archived here) with an apparent quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on “socialism for the rich” and “rugged individualism for the poor.”

To the right of a photograph of King, text read:

“This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, 1968

A cursory search revealed a number of hits attributing the same quote to King. A notable version was a tweet sent by Senator Bernie Sanders in August 2018:

Another prominent iteration of the quote appeared on Wikiquote’s “Democratic Socialism” page, under the letter “K”:

  • This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted by Bernie Sanders on Democratic Socialism in the United States (19 November 2015)

A citation for that quote led to a since-removed webpage on Bernie (“Senator Bernie Sanders on Democratic Socialism in the United States.”) An archived copy of the page included a 2015 quote from Sanders, who in turn was purportedly quoting King:

People are not truly free when they are unable to feed their family. People are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. People are not truly free when they are unemployed or underpaid or when they are exhausted by working long hours. People are not truly free when they have no health care.

So let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me. It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that; “This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.” It builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.

…And, then, to add insult to injury, we were told that not only were the banks too big to fail, the bankers were too big to jail. Kids who get caught possessing marijuana get police records. Wall Street CEOs who help destroy the economy get raises in their salaries. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant by socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for everyone else.

Although the prepared remarks did not include a citation, they did include a year — 1968, a time in history in which the generalized “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor” phrasing rose in popularity, thanks in part to housing authority Charles Abrams, who was quoted in Michael Harrington’s  popular 1962 book The Other America: Poverty in the United States. A 1963 review in The Atlantic discusses the scope of the problem in terms that sound all too familiar:

Mr. Harrington estimates that between forty and fifty million Americans, or about a fourth of the population, are now living in poverty. Not just below the level of comfortable living, but real poverty, in the old-fashioned sense of the word—that they are hard put to it to get the mere necessities, beginning with enough to eat. This is difficult to believe in the United States of 1963, but one has to make the effort, and it is now being made. The extent of our poverty has suddenly become visible. The same thing has happened in England, where working-class gains as a result of the Labour Party’s post-1945 welfare state blinded almost everybody to the continued existence of mass poverty. It was not until Professor Richard M. Titmuss, of the London School of Economics, published a series of articles in the New Statesman last fall, based on his new book, “Income Distribution and Social Change” (Allen & Unwin), that even the liberal public in England became aware that the problem still persists on a scale that is “statistically significant,” as the economists put it.

The latter half of the 1960s were a time in which Americans were more and more aware of mass poverty and how to identify and solve the issues that plague the impoverished and perpetuate the cycle, meaning that phrases such as the one attributed to King cropped up more and more as the country approached the 1970s.

A 1993 New York Times article about Martin Luther King, Jr. (“King’s Light, Malcolm’s Shadow” by Michael Eric Dyson) reported:

As King grew more suspicious of our nation’s ability to change, his language became more radical, his temperament less patient. Where before he spoke of nonviolent civil disobedience, he began during the planning of the Poor People’s March on Washington to speak about “aggressive nonviolence,” by which he meant disrupting government and blocking roads during protests. By 1968, King said America was a “sick, neurotic nation” in need of a “revolution of values.” He also became more critical of economic inequities, pointing out that America practiced “socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.”

The latter citation was a 2007 book, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice, in which King was said to have “frequently used” the phrasing “socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor” in his speeches and press releases.

An archived page on The King Center’s website featured a digitized copy of a February 1967 press release titled “SOCIALISM FOR THE RICH, FREE ENTERPRISE FOR THE POOR.” The release was issued by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the quote attributed to King colleague Andrew Young.

Finally, a January 2019 blog post contained the following passage:

A half-century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the stilted rhetoric used use to talk about public spending to promote the social good:

Whenever the government provides opportunities in privileges for white people and rich people they call it “subsidized” when they do it for Negro and poor people they call it “welfare.” The fact that is the everybody in this country lives on welfare. Suburbia was built with federally subsidized credit. And highways that take our white brothers out to the suburbs were built with federally subsidized money to the tune of 90 percent. Everybody is on welfare in this country. The problem is that we all [too] often have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor. That’s the problem.

“The Minister to the Valley,” February 23, 1968, From the archives of the SCLC.*

The post contained confirmation of the quote’s authenticity in January 2017, thanks to a particularly dogged researcher:

In that substantiated version, King said:

The problem is that we all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor. That’s the problem.

The quote from “The Other 98%” was quite similar to King’s original version, but not identical. The meme’s version said “rugged individualism,” and the original “rugged free enterprise capitalism.” However, the claim was mostly true, as King did say that the United States offered socialism for the rich, and the “rugged free enterprise capitalism” for the poor.