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.