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“MLK’s Prophetic Call For Economic Justice”: This Country Has Socialism For The Rich, Rugged Individualism For The Poor

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s economic message was fiery and radical. To our society’s great shame, it has also proved timeless.

As we celebrate King’s great achievement and sacrifice, it is wrong to round off the sharp edges of his legacy. He saw inequality as a fundamental and tragic flaw in this society, and he made clear in the weeks leading up to his assassination that economic issues were becoming the central focus of his advocacy.

Nearly five decades later, King’s words on the subject still ring true. On March 10, 1968, just weeks before his death, he spoke to a union group in New York about what he called “the other America.” He was preparing to launch a Poor People’s Campaign whose premise was that issues of jobs and issues of justice were inextricably intertwined.

“One America is flowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality,” King said. “That America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. . . . But as we assemble here tonight, I’m sure that each of us is painfully aware of the fact that there is another America, and that other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

Those who lived in the other America, King said, were plagued by “inadequate, substandard and often dilapidated housing conditions,” by “substandard, inferior, quality-less schools,” by having to choose between unemployment and low-wage jobs that didn’t even pay enough to put food on the table.

The problem was structural, King said: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”

Eight days later, speaking in Memphis, King continued the theme. “Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day?” he asked striking sanitation workers. “And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”

King explained the shift in his focus: “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

Obviously, much has changed for African Americans since that time; anyone who says otherwise is plainly wrong. There is no longer any question of who gets served at lunch counters. Mississippi, where African Americans were once disenfranchised at the barrel of a gun, has more black elected officials than any other state. An African American family lives in the White House.

But what King saw in 1968 — and what we all should recognize today — is that it is useless to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of inequality. He was planning a poor people’s march on Washington that would include not only African Americans but also Latinos, Native Americans and poor Appalachian whites. He envisioned a rainbow of the dispossessed, assembled to demand not just an end to discrimination but a change in the way the economy doles out its spoils.

King did not live to lead that demonstration, which ended up becoming the “Resurrection City” tent encampment on the Mall. Protesters never won passage of the “economic bill of rights” they had sought.

Today, our society is much more affluent overall — and much more unequal. Since King’s death, the share of total U.S. income earned by the top 1 percent has more than doubled. Studies indicate there is less economic mobility in the United States than in most other developed countries. The American dream is in danger of becoming a distant memory.

This column is not about policy prescriptions or partisan politics. King was a prophet. His role was to see clearly what others could not or would not recognize, and to challenge our consciences.

Paying homage to King as one of our nation’s greatest leaders means remembering not just his soaring oratory about racial justice but his pointed words about economic justice as well. Inequality, he told us, threatens the well-being of the nation. Extending a hand to those in need makes us stronger.


By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, January 16, 2015

January 18, 2015 Posted by | Discrimination, Economic Inequality, Martin Luther King Jr | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Two America’s Truer Now Than Ever”: Perishing On A Lonely Island Of Poverty In The Midst Of A Vast Ocean Of Material Prosperity

You may think you know about Martin Luther King, Jr., but there is much about the man and his message we have conveniently forgotten. He was a prophet, like Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah of old, calling kings and plutocrats to account — speaking truth to power.

King was only 39 when he was murdered in Memphis 45 years ago, on April 4th, 1968. The 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery were behind him. So was the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In the last year of his life, as he moved toward Memphis and his death, he announced what he called the Poor People’s Campaign, a “multi-racial army” that would come to Washington, build an encampment and demand from Congress an “Economic Bill of Rights” for all Americans — black, white, or brown. He had long known that the fight for racial equality could not be separated from the need for economic equity — fairness for all, including working people and the poor.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had more than a dream — he envisioned what America could be, if only it lived up to its promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for each and every citizen. That’s what we have conveniently forgotten as the years have passed and his reality has slowly been shrouded in the marble monuments of sainthood.

But read part of the speech Dr. King made at Stanford University in 1967, a year before his assassination and marvel at how relevant his words remain:

“There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. And in a sense this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and dignity for their spirits…

“…Tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infected vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Breathtakingly prescient words as we look around us at a society where the chasm between the super-rich and poor is wider and deeper than ever. According to a Department of Housing and Urban Development press release, “On a single night last January, 633,782 people were homeless in the United States.” The Institute for Policy Studies’ online weekly “Too Much” notes that single-room-occupancy shelter rates run about $558 per month and quotes analyst Paul Buchheit, who says that at that rate, “Any one of America’s ten richest collected enough in 2012 income to pay an entire year’s rent for all of America’s homeless.”

But why rent when you can buy? “Too Much” also reports that the widow of recently deceased financier Martin Zweig “amid a Manhattan luxury boom” has placed their apartment at the top of the posh Pierre Hotel on the market for $125 million: “A sale at that price would set a new New York record for a luxury personal residence, more than $30 million over the current real estate high marks.”

Meanwhile, a new briefing paper from the advocacy group National Employment Law Project (NELP) finds there are 27 million unemployed or underemployed workers in the U.S. labor force, including “not only the unemployed counted by official jobs reports, but also the eight million part-time workers who would rather be working full-time and the 6.8 million discouraged workers who want to work but who have stopped looking altogether.” Five years after the financial meltdown, “the average duration of unemployment remains at least twice that of any other recession since the 1950s.”

And if you think austerity’s a good idea, NELP estimates that, “Taken together, the ‘sequester’ and other budget-cutting policies will likely slow GDP this year by 2.1 percentage points, costing the U.S. economy over 2.4 million jobs.”

Walmart’s one of those companies laying people off, but according to the website Business Insider, the mega-chain’s CEO Michael Duke gets paid 1,034 times more than his average worker. Matter of fact, “In the past 30 years, compensation for chief executives in America has increased 127 times faster than the average worker’s salary.”

Two Americas indeed.


By: Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, Moyers and Company, April 10, 2013

April 15, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Poverty | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Remembering Dr. King

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (BuyenLarge/Getty Images)

I was surprised by his assassination. I didn’t see the Poor People’s Campaign as the threat to Washington and the Establishment that I now see it was. We feared for Dr. King’s life more in the early Sixties, through 1963, than we did by 1968. Up through 1965, there was a civil-rights-related death every couple of months, though most of them didn’t make headlines. By the end of ’65, there was a lull in the killings, and I thought perhaps we were finally beyond all that.

In his last year, we worried about Dr. King’s health. He was working eighteen to twenty hours a day. He would stay up all night reading, talking, clowning – whatever he felt like doing – and then wake up at five-thirty raring to go. His wife used to say that he had a war on sleep.

We would tell him that it looked like he was going to be around for a long time, and he couldn’t possibly keep this pace up, because he was close to forty. But if you said anything, he’d brush you off. I could never argue with him anyway. He was a preacher. And whenever we argued, he’d get to preaching. You never won an argument because he would take off on flights of oratory, and you’d forget your point trying to listen to him.

The year he died was the year he felt he had to establish the agenda for America’s future. For fifteen years he’d been struggling with the issues of racism, poverty and war. He refused to be just a civil rights leader. He was a sensitive lover of people who saw his primary responsibility in the black community. By 1968, though, it was clear to him that the black community could not concern itself with civil rights issues alone. The country was spending billions of dollars in Vietnam, and he saw racism and war becoming ever more tied up into one big problem for this country.

It was a time of increasing desperation for him. The SCLC had a fraction of the budget it should have had, about $700,000, and a small staff of fifty people, trying to take on the problems of the urban North, as well as the South, which still had large pockets of resistance. Not only weren’t we getting any aid from the federal government, but we had legions of FBI agents tracking us down, harassing us, trying to disrupt the work we were doing – work which I thought was the only thing that was giving America a fighting chance to survive.

The dangerous times when we were together were always the times he was most humorous. For years we couldn’t go anywhere without FBI men following us around. Dr. King was philosophical about it and very friendly toward them. Every now and then, we would leave a meeting through another entrance – not to escape the car that trailed us, but to sneak up on them. Dr. King would say hello, introduce us and (we always gave them the benefit of the doubt) thank them for the “protection” they were giving us.

I think he would have been quite content to be pastor of the Riverside Church, maybe teach at a university or a seminary. He wanted to teach the philosophy of religion, which was the subject of his Ph.D. He turned down a chance for the presidency of the NAACP when he first came to Montgomery in 1954, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to become that involved in the growing civil rights movement.

But when the bus boycott came in ’55, he was pressed into action. He had to respond. He was just twenty-six, and he never had the time to be the fun-loving man that he really was. He made the cover of Time magazine only a couple of years after he finished his degree, and then he was a celebrity.

From that time on he felt the burden of the country, his people and the world on his shoulders. He accepted it, but he always said he would have liked to do something else. He felt responsible for America’s future and its survival because he said that nobody understands nonviolence except black Americans, and if America was going to learn to live with the rest of the world, we’d have to help her find a nonmilitary course. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, in fact, Dr. King said that the choice was nonviolence or nonexistence. I think back sometimes to what this country would have been like without Dr. King. The South was an armed camp in the Forties and Fifties. The GI bill and better job opportunities had created the beginnings of a black middle class, and they were not going to tolerate oppression any further. The white forces of reaction were trying to resist the advance of this new black middle class.

Every black family in the South had a gun. My father was probably the least violent man I know, and yet there were at least four guns in our household. Had there been no Martin Luther King Jr., the southern part of the United States would have looked like Northern Ireland or Lebanon.

And yet Martin saw that blacks and whites did not hate each other. They were being forced down through history on a collision course. Martin Luther King straightened out that course. He made it possible for blacks and whites to move in a parallel course of development and work together by using the tactic and methodology of nonviolence. He did not blame the white man for the problems that blacks were having. He saw blacks and whites caught up in a situation that they didn’t create, that they inherited. He saw nonviolence as a means for bringing people to realize that they could work their way together out of the situation.

Dr. King never understood why J. Edgar Hoover couldn’t comprehend what he was doing. If you read Hoover’s FBI reports on the March on Washington speech, you realize that he never saw Dr. King’s vision of a New America. He saw a powerful, radical political voice trying to destroy the nation.

I didn’t know then, but I now think that there lies the indirect responsibility for his assassination. I don’t know if it can ever be pinned down, but there are so many client groups that did dirty jobs around and for official people. I think now that Dr. King’s assassination was directly related to the fear that officialdom had of his bringing large numbers of poor people to the nation’s capital, setting up tents, demanding some response from them.


By: Andrew Young, Rolling Stone, January 13, 2012. (This story is from the December 1, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone). Writing in 1977, the famed civil rights activist Andrew Young reflects on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King.


January 16, 2012 Posted by | Martin Luther King | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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