On January 17 2020, an Imgur post featured a screenshot of a tweet by @andrehenry quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Capitalism, asserting that such a system did not “permit an even flow of resources”:
The widely viewed and shared Imgur post *(““Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was campaigning for UBI when he was assassinated.” – AY; This is a long fight and we cannot afford to get discouraged”) displayed a January 15 2020 tweet by @andrehenry:
In the tweet, @andrehenry wrote:
Once again, it’s that time of year that we pretend Dr. King never said things like this:
An AZquotes.com image contained only King’s name, but not a date or specific citation for the following quote:
Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.
Top results on Google were from very recent sources, editorials, letters to the editor, and mentions in columns marking Dr. King’s birthday in 2020. Given that the post was shared five days prior to January 20 2020, it seemed likely the viral tweet was the source for the quote in many of those entries.
An absence of older citations is sometimes an indication that a quote is either newly rediscovered, a distant paraphrasing, or completely made up. Typically, King’s quotes had a long history on the internet, and the “Capitalism does not permit an even flow of resources” one was not nearly as well distributed as others.
It did appear on sites like BrainyQuote.com, but again without any contextual information about the quote’s origin. We restricted search results to those in or before January 2016, and only a handful of pages (many misdated) populated search results. One result was a blog post from December 2015, but it again included no information about the supposed source. Quotes attributed to King came from various sources, such as writings, letters, and speeches.
An article from May 2012 included the quote in its entirety, attributing it to singer and activist Harry Belafonte’s 2012 memoir My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance. In that piece, which appeared on the World Socialist Web Site (wsws.org), Belafonte’s memoir is quoted at length; the excerpted portion included the quote, which we have emphasized below:
A party was held at Belafonte’s large apartment. After the guests had left, King and some of his closest colleagues stayed and talked about the conditions in the country and the state of the civil rights movement. Among those present, in addition to King and Belafonte, were King’s lawyer, Clarence Jones, his secretary and bodyguard, Bernard Lee, and Andrew Young, who would later become a congressman, the mayor of Atlanta, and also the US ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter.
This passage in Belafonte’s book deserves careful examination. The political establishment had reacted with fury to King’s denunciation of the Vietnam War. The ghetto rebellions had erupted in nearly every major northern US city over the previous four summers. King was intensely affected by these conditions. In the midst of the discussion, he exclaimed:
“Somehow, frustration over the war has brought forth this idea that the solution resides in violence. What I cannot get across to these young people is that I wholly embrace everything they feel! It’s just the tactics we can’t agree on. I have more in common with these young people than with anybody else in this movement. I feel their rage. I feel their pain. I feel their frustration. It’s the system that’s the problem, and it’s choking the breath out of our lives.”
Belafonte continues, “In the pause that followed, Andy [Young] replied, ‘Well, I don’t know, Martin. It’s not the entire system. It’s only part of it, and I think we can fix that.’
“Suddenly, Martin lost his temper. ‘I don’t need to hear from you, Andy,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard enough from you. You’re a capitalist, and I’m not. And so we don’t see eye to eye — on this and a lot of other stuff.’
“It was an awkward moment. Martin was really angry. But I understood the subtext. Deep down, Andy was ambivalent about the Poor People’s Campaign…
“The tension peaked. ‘The trouble,’ Martin went on, ‘is that we live in a failed system. Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level…That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we’re going to have to change the system.’
“At heart, Martin was a socialist and a revolutionary thinker. He spoke not just in anger, but in anguish. His voice dropped to a more reflective tone as he continued. ‘We fought hard and long, and I have never doubted that we would prevail in this struggle. Already our rewards have begun to reveal themselves. Desegregation…the Voting Rights Act…’ He paused. ‘But what deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.’
“We had not heard Martin quite this way before. I felt as if our moorings were unhinging. ‘Damn, Martin! If that’s what you think, what would you have us do?’ I asked.
“He gave me a look. ‘I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.'”
King was a pacifist and a reformist. If he had been a revolutionary thinker, it is likely that his tone would have been one of determination, not anguish, as Belafonte describes it. Nevertheless, his sincerity as a fighter for the interests of the exploited and the poor comes through quite clearly in this passage, and it is significant but not surprising that this side of his political views is rarely presented as he has been transformed into a public icon.
The passage appeared on page 328 of Belafonte’s My Song memoir, pinning down the source as a conversation between Young and King after a party at Belafonte’s apartment. King’s complete comment was as follows:
The trouble is that we live in a failed system. Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level … That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we’re going to have to change the system.
Martin Luther King, Jr. did say “capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources,” but the quote was not as well substantiated due to its source — Belafonte’s memoir. The comment was not made publicly during a speech or published in a letter, but was spoken in a moment of frustrated debate between King and another guest — Andrew Young — as they debated the “failed system” that King sought to change, work that Young has spent his life and career continuing.