We have little trouble remembering the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights icon. But we rarely do the harder work of remembering the full King, reconstructing the many complicated and controversial parts of what he did and said. We particularly fail to remember his call for Americans to do something hard but necessary: redistribute wealth.
That failure occurs, in large part, because one of those stories fits neatly into a narrative Americans find comforting, and the other does not. King’s civil rights story has a clear beginning — the Montgomery bus boycott — and an apparently triumphant ending — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
King’s dream of economic equality has been harder to achieve. Why? For one, he demanded that Americans restructure capitalism, both at home and abroad. But he also challenged a core part of the American Dream: the false assumption that those who work hard can move upward. King rejected the bootstrap myth, because he understood that many people, notably those of color, didn’t even have boots.
At the end of his life, King had embraced a full-throated condemnation of the American economic system that favored wealth and demeaned those caught in poverty. But there were glimpses of this critique in earlier moments. His “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963 laid out a broad economic struggle that black Americans had and would continue to face without adequate redress of civil and economic rights.
Delivering his famous speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King told audiences, “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. . . . In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check . . . that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” Justice in this sense was both protection from segregationists and access to that “vast ocean of material prosperity.”
But only the “dream” part of the speech persists in our national story. White Americans clung to King’s emphasis on the “content of character,” because the phrase appeared to argue for a colorblind society, deflecting attention from the racial injustice built into the American economic system.
By not truly remembering the whole speech, we fail to comprehend the condemnation of the very system King was challenging. Without economic justice, walking in the front door of a store or eating at the counter was meaningless, because the poor couldn’t afford the goods.
Even at the great moments of triumph of the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, King reiterated this economic message. During his 1965 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, he boldly stated, “I still dream that one day all of God’s children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, and freedom for their spirits.” His dream, he said, had turned into a nightmare, because capitalism continued to deprive Americans of spiritual wealth and genuine justice. But he still held out hope for the nation.
King believed that American capitalism would and should collapse on itself, so that a better economic system could arise in its place. He was not a Marxist, though, because he believed that the materialism in communism undermined that system, too. His “world house” would be built on something different from consumption. “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets life is social,” he said in a 1967 speech. An alternative system would have to tackle root issues, by first understanding that “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
For King, economic justice was at the core of his religion and his political activism. While his detractors, including members of the Johnson administration, thought his pursuit of economic justice was beyond his level of competence as a preacher, it was actually at the core of his being. King’s public ministry had begun to challenge American democracy and capitalism in ways that went beyond access to the ballot box and consumer goods. He also noted that the nation’s assertion of global dominance was an extension of business interests that benefited from military spending.
This is the radical King that many had come to know by the end of his career.
He was in Memphis to launch the Poor People’s Campaign, working in a concrete way with sanitation workers striking for better wages and working conditions. Memphis is a key part of King’s legacy precisely because it was not like civil rights marches in Montgomery and Birmingham. We remember the successes in Montgomery and later Birmingham because they focused more on the access to accommodations, giving us “good” actors and “bad” actors. Memphis, on the other hand, was about unions and pay and working conditions, highlighting the problems of capitalism that have yet to be resolved.
By skipping the period from 1964 to 1968, we allow ourselves to see King dying for civil rights. He was in Memphis for economic justice. Poor people all over the world had become his concern.
At his death, he had become radicalized, as theologian James Cone observed, but not in ways we typically talk about black activists. King’s radicalism centered on the capitalist structures that fed the false story of a nation of bootstrappers. Land grants to white American migrants and European immigrants in the Midwest and West were “undergirded” by land-grant colleges, county agents and low-interest-rate loans, he argued. “And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every year not to farm. . . . It’s all right to tell a man to lift themselves by their own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
If the United States were to live its true creed, which it had yet to do in King’s estimation, economic redistribution of wealth and refrained use of military force was the only way forward. By not remembering the entirety of his message, we have misunderstood his dream for the nation. His commitment to economic justice both at home and abroad should be his lasting legacy, because it is still the challenge we face today.