Coretta Scott King opposed violence in all its forms — from the personal violence that took her husband 50 years ago Wednesday, to what she described as the economic violence of unemployment and poverty that continues around us.
In the five days after her husband’s assassination, she traveled more than 1,348 miles — venturing from her home in Atlanta to Memphis to retrieve her husband’s body from where he had been supporting sanitation workers’ bitter fight for better wages and workplace safety. And then returning to Memphis a second time to protest with the workers and to ensure her husband’s death was not in vain. In between, she made arrangements for his funeral and explained to her children the loss of their father. Throughout, she was buoyed by the voice of her eldest, Yolanda, who responded to the news by telling her mother, “My daddy’s not really dead. He may be physically dead, but his spirit will never die.”
In the days immediately after her husband’s death, and in the years after, King devoted herself to keeping alive that spirit as she worked to advance their shared vision of ameliorating and abolishing human suffering. She had been an activist even before she met King and remained one throughout their marriage. In the years after her husband’s death, King redirected her activism toward economic policy. She crafted legislation to eradicate unemployment and poverty — what she termed Phase Two of the movement. Now that voting rights were secured, it was time to win on the economic front.
Just two days after the assassination, King emphasized this in a public address, saying that her husband “gave his life for the poor of the world — the garbage workers of Memphis and the peasants of Vietnam. Nothing hurt him more than that man could attempt no way to solve problems except through violence.”
The day before King’s funeral in Atlanta, his wife again flew to Memphis alongside Harry Belafonte and with her three oldest children to continue her husband’s work on behalf of the city’s sanitation workers. She believed that the trip could provide comfort for her children — that they would see in real terms what their father meant to so many people.
Alongside 50,000 other protesters, King and her children marched a mile to the Memphis City Hall. While there, she explained that her husband’s legacy meant that “his campaign for the poor must go on,” and added, “we are at the point where we must have economic power.”
Like her husband’s work on the Poor People’s Campaign, King saw tackling issues of poverty and unemployment as the key to composing political alliances across divisions. “We are concerned about not only the Negro poor, but the poor all over America and all over the world.” That day, and in the years that followed, she continued these efforts.
But King was not only concerned with moral values — she also wanted policy change. In 1974, she co-founded and led the Full Employment Action Council and the National Committee for Full Employment. Amid the economic turmoil of the period, these organizations argued that the federal government needed to step in and provide jobs for all unemployed people.
At the time, many policymakers estimated that it was impossible to get unemployment below 5 percent — an argument still made today. For black workers, whose unemployment rates are typically double that of white workers, that meant accepting an unemployment rate of at least 10 percent.
But civil rights activists had, for decades, experienced experts and elites telling them that their demands for dignity and justice were unattainable. So King and her colleagues cast aside these nostrums.
As she told members of the House of Representatives in 1975, on the seventh anniversary of her husband’s assassination: “While I am no economist, I have no hesitation about asserting that this profoundly pessimistic notion — that full employment is impossible — need not, and in fact, must not, be accepted. For if, as the saying goes, war is too important to leave to the generals, then it is equally true that social and economic justice in America is far too important to be left to the economists.” Her organizations became the grass-roots force behind the campaign for legislation to ensure jobs for everyone who needed one — at good wages and where people were located.
The coalition organized countless protests over the following years in support of what would become the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978. To celebrate what would have been her husband’s 47th birthday in 1976, King led 10,000 protesters to the Atlanta Federal Reserve building where she announced, “We have a right to a job.”
The Humphrey-Hawkins Act had its most far-reaching promise sapped on the road from bill to law. Yet it has still become most well known for affirming and institutionalizing the Fed’s employment mandate by requiring biannual testimony before Congress. But other provisions of the law remain unfulfilled, like one that called for reductions in the disparities between unemployment rates for people of color — those most discriminated against in the labor market — and white Americans. For King, the achievement of the law was not an endpoint but a necessary step on a journey that continues today.
King’s vision for what type of work people could do is prescient in our current moment, as well. She did not envision these jobs as simply make-work programs but, rather, those that would fulfill social needs. “The jobless men in our cities are idle resources which could easily be put to work on needed, valuable projects, enhancing the quality of all our lives through jobs providing better health care, environmental improvement and the development of new and better systems of transit and housing for urban America.”
After falling out of favor in the 1980s, activists and politicians such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, have now returned to the concept of guaranteed jobs, embracing full-
As King believed, few things could do more to honor her late husband than fulfilling his life’s mission to abolish want and suffering. Fifty years after his death, it is past time to ensure that the economic violence of unemployment and wagelessness is eradicated. As she said in her speech at Memphis City Hall: “Our great nation, as he often said, has the resources, but his question was: Do we have the will?”