In our highly polarized political climate, Americans can agree on few things. One rare point of unity is the legacy of Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, whom 90 percent of Americans view favorably — a considerably higher percentage than when he was alive.
Our nation’s collective memory of King is perhaps best summed up by the “fun facts” coloring page my son brought home from his first grade classroom in 2019. A cartoon depiction of King stands in the center of the page holding two flags, one reading “freedom” and the other reading “equality.” Surrounding him are four statements:
“I was a key leader in the American Civil Rights Movement.”
“I believed in, and fought for, equal rights for African Americans.”
“I helped end legal segregation and discrimination in the United States.”
“My famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream,’ promoted freedom and equality for all.”
The King most of us honor each year fits neatly with the vision of our nation triumphantly overcoming its immoral missteps, making King’s dream — the American dream — a reality. Our nation’s unjust past becomes further evidence of its greatness since we generated not only the injustice but also the solution to that injustice. Racial segregation was a test, and we passed.
But this vision of King, however unifying, is ultimately a fable that serves the economically and politically powerful, who are themselves standing in the way of progress toward the just society he died struggling to build. This fable hollows out King’s most incisive social critiques and dulls his prophetic philosophy of social transformation in the service of love. Central to that vision was the elimination of economic inequality.
Breaking Silence About Economic Injustice
On April 4, 1967, one year before his death, Reverend King delivered his boldest national address, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” King called for the United States to withdraw from Vietnam and begin a “radical revolution of values” by channeling the millions of dollars spent on war to address the dire needs of the nation’s poor. He contended that the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” reinforced one another, preventing the flourishing of a truly just society.
King came to this conclusion after observing that millions of black people remained in dire conditions even as important advances had been made in civil rights, including ending segregation and expanding voting rights. As early as the bus boycott years, King had argued that those in power pit poor whites against ethnic minorities to prevent poor people from working collaboratively to change the social order.
King understood that black people and other minorities disproportionately bore the burden of poverty. But he also knew that all of the poor, including the millions of poor whites, were economically oppressed. In a December 1967 speech, “Nonviolence and Social Change,” King said:
In our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income. You are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist. You are in a real way depriving him of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, denying in his case the very creed of his society.
In his book Where Do We Go From Here, also published in 1967, King wrote that the United States could initiate this transition by guaranteeing a livable minimum annual income for every American family as well as ensuring all workers, regardless of industry, are paid a fair wage.
There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum — and livable — income for every American family.
King’s Other Dream
In what would be the last months of his life, King joined fellow organizers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in planning a Poor People’s Campaign. The intent was to bring together two thousand poor people from all different ethnic-cultural walks of life to set up an encampment in Washington DC culminating in a new march on Washington, like the one in 1963 where he gave his famed “I Had a Dream” speech. The aim was to pressure leaders in the federal government to commit $12 billion to address systemic poverty.
During a 1967 planning meeting, King said, “I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.” King and SCLC intended to draw on their organizing knowledge and expertise in nonviolent civil disobedience to do for economic justice what their movement had achieved for civil rights with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights of 1965.
On April 3, 1968, King joined striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, he was assassinated. He was murdered just two months before the Poor People’s March.
After his death, the SCLC, led by King’s colleague Ralph Abernathy, followed through with the plan. The campaign launched in Washington DC on May 12 with a Mother’s Day march, led by Coretta Scott King, through poor neighborhoods. A month later, on June 19, more than fifty thousand people marched to the capital demanding economic rights. An ensuing encampment of about three thousand people from a wide array of ethnic background occupied the National Mall in what was dubbed “Resurrection City” for forty-two days.
US Economic Inequality
More than fifty years after King’s assassination and the summer of the Poor People’s Campaign, the Federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 an hour. For perspective, the federal minimum wage of 1968 ($1.60) had the buying power of more than $11 in today’s money. According to Oxfam, 43.7 percent of workers in the United States earned less than $15 an hour in 2021. More than 50 percent of black workers and 60 percent of Hispanic workers earn under $15 an hour. For those working forty-hour workweeks, that’s $600 a week, $2,600 a month, and $31,200 a year. A third of US workers — 31.3 percent — don’t even make that much; they earn less than $12 an hour.
The problem is not that workers’ labor is worth less than it used to be. In April 2022, the Center for Economic and Policy Research concluded that the minimum wage would have been $23 in 2021 if it kept up with inflation and worker productivity. Instead, the additional profits generated by working people have gone into the bank accounts of the wealthy few.
The percentage of overall wealth possessed by the bottom 50 percent in the United States remains about the same as in the late 1960s during King’s last years. In 2021, the bottom 50 percent owned just 1.5 percent of all wealth. Whereas the top 1 percent of adults had about 25 percent of the wealth in the late 1960s, they now possess 34.9 percent. And the richest 10 percent of the population owns 70.7 percent of all wealth.
Contrary to dominant ideology, hard work does not correlate to increased income under capitalism. Instead, money is made through ownership and investment. Not only do the wealthy own most of the property, but they also own most of the stocks. In 2021, the wealthiest 10 percent of US households owned 89 percent of all US stocks. The bottom 90 percent of Americans held about 11 percent of all stocks.
In his defiant “Three Evils of Society” speech, King cleverly observed that US political policies favor “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.” Part of our problem is that we
have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor — both black and white, both here and abroad.
Contrary to the culturally exalted model of combating poverty through nonprofit, nongovernmental philanthropy, King believed that poverty could only be remedied through political-structural transformation. “The way to end poverty,” he said, “is to end the exploitation of the poor.” To this he added we could end poverty by also ensuring poor people have “a fair share of the government services and the nation’s resources.”
Attempting to solve the problem of poverty by exclusively teaching poor people how to “improve themselves” and better manage their financial resources is a bit like teaching black boys and men to navigate white supremacy by not wearing hoodies, or like trying to help women combat sexist harassment by encouraging them to dress more modestly. These kinds of suggestions fail to address the root of the problem and simply blame the victim. Ultimately, King believed, we will have to transform the economic structure itself.
Where Do We Go From Here?
On June 18, 2022, the nonpartisan Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will hold a poor people’s and low-wage workers’ assembly and march on Washington, DC. Led by Reverend William Barber and Reverend Dr Liz Theoharis, the nonpartisan grassroots group’s aim is to advance the campaign launched by King and his allies in 1967, and to finally fulfill its aims. They seek increased minimum state and federal wages, an end to anti-union laws, fully funded welfare programs, and free tuition at public colleges and universities.
The new Poor People’s Campaign demands immediate federal and state action to address the needs of millions of poor and low-income Americans. The group contends that the official poverty measure, which would not label a family of four earning $26,000 as poor, conceals the extent of the problem. By the official measure, about 12 percent of the US population is poor and another 18 percent near-poor. But other calculations of poverty that account for costs of essentials such as food, clothing, housing, and utilities, conclude that closer to 43 percent of the US population is poor or low-income.
Our task, King makes clear, is to unite in common struggle against an economic system that deprives us of our life, liberty, and rightful pursuit of happiness. As King said,
The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.