Poverty, Racism, and the Legacy of King’s Poor People’s Campaign
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50 Voices for 50 Years

Poverty, Racism, and the Legacy of King’s Poor People’s Campaign

By Keri Leigh Merritt

 

Reflecting back upon the fifty years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one singular point always stands out, a searing reminder of what was – and still is – America’s grossest injustice: that in one of the richest nations in the world, so many millions of people remain trapped in cyclical, soul-crushing poverty.

Dr. King, of course, regularly received death threats as he fought for political rights for African Americans. Police and law enforcement agents beat and jailed him repeatedly for his stances on social equity. Yet it remains poignant and striking that he was murdered as soon as he began agitating for economic justice.

The memory of King as an impassioned economic justice-warrior is continually threatened today by the oligarchs who remain in power. They instead take great pains to erase that part of King’s life from his legacy. They attempt to silence his cries for a more monetarily equitable society. They deliberately obscure the final few years of his life.

This sanitized, “white-washed” version of King, presented in everything from children’s textbooks to internet memes, purges the intense radicalism of the strike-leading preacher. By his late-thirties, King fully realized that social and political justice would always be predicated upon economics. Poverty, he understood, had to be eradicated. His speeches increasingly became threatening to the established American economic hierarchy. He very naturally turned his attention to the benefits of “Christina” socialism – and the historical reasons why a redistribution of wealth was both necessary and just.

By 1967, King was repeatedly condemning the “triple evils” of racism, militarism, and poverty. He began defining true integration as a society in which all people – regardless of race or background – would “share equally” not only power but also wealth. Poverty could be abolished completely given that America was one of the richest nations in the world, he held. By reallocating money spent on the Vietnam War to poor people, every citizen finally could afford decent housing and good educations, economic assurances that would literally transform their lives.[1]

As King advanced his arguments, he always undergirded his policy proposals with an extremely sophisticated grasp of the nation’s history. “The plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power, both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness,” he thundered, and “power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose.”[2]

In addition to standard social safety nets such as universal health care, King further advocated for a universal jobs guarantee and a basic income for all Americans. “We must create full employment, or we must create incomes…New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available,” he continued.[3]

King was right: America is still – today – in desperate need of both a federal jobs guarantee (FJG) and a universal basic income (UBI). The UBI would be for those who truly needed it—those who could not endure traditional full-time employment, either because of age, illness, disability, care-taking or student-status.

But, as King suggested, a UBI must be paired with an FJG. The vast majority of Americans want to work; they derive a sense of pride and fulfillment and identity from their jobs. A FJG would truly revolutionize society. Part of the FJG’s brilliance lies in its inherent protection of workers: because disgruntled laborers always have the option of leaving an abusive workplace to work for the government, a FJG would keep private companies—who historically have exploited their workers at every turn—as honest and humane as employers can possibly be.

Soon after making these recommendations, in November of 1967 Martin Luther King announced the Poor People’s Campaign. The movement organized a temporary city – Resurrection City – on the National Mall. It was populated by 3,000-5,000 impoverished Americans: black, white, Native American, Mexican American, and Puerto Rican. Against the wishes of more conservative Civil Rights leaders, King and several other advisors met with government officials to demand more jobs, a living minimum wage, affordable housing, reasonably-priced food, a better system of education, and even unemployment insurance.[4]

In one of his final speeches, “Remaining Awake for a Great Revolution,” delivered just days before his death, King passionately called for an intensified and racially unified movement. He wanted to continue the fight against such incredible poverty in a country filled with so much concentrated opulence. “Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation,” he preached, yet “America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor.”[5]

These points, made so eloquently by King half a century ago, are still essential to understanding the tragedies of America today. Indeed, rampant, systemic racism, the persistence of poverty, and a deep division between poor and working-class people of different races have kept us the most backward, unequal developed countries in the world.

Indeed, as wealth inequality continues to deepen, political disfranchisement once again becomes commonplace, and increasing numbers of Americans become apathetic and nihilistic, we are truly at a crossroads. And as modern technological innovation and the loss of American jobs overseas further threatens the plight of laborers, nothing short of the drastic changes that Martin Luther King, Jr. proposed during the Poor People’s Campaign will truly help alleviate hardship and suffering among our nation’s most impoverished. Such a fundamental restructuring of our society would also usher in a cultural and spiritual renaissance of sorts, as we connect labor—all labor—back to dignity, economic sufficiency, and autonomy.

It’s time once again – at this precipitous historical moment, 50 years after Martin Luther King’s death – to propose real solutions to end impoverishment once and for all, to usher in a Third American Reconstruction. As King so righteously thundered just a few short days before his assassination, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty.” But, he concluded, “The real question is whether we have the will.”[6]

 

 

[1] Michael Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 174-5.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?,” Delivered at the 11th Annual SCLS Convention, Atlanta, GA, Aug. 16, 1967. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go-here-delivered-11th-annual-sclc-convention

[3] Ibid.

[4] Amy Nathan Wright, “Civil Rights ‘Unfinished Business’: Poverty, Race, and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” Ph.D. Diss., University of Texas, 2007.

[6] Ibid.

 

About Keri Leigh Merritt

Keri Leigh Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her B.A. in History and Political Science from Emory University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. (2014) in History from the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on race and class in U.S. history. Merritt’s work on poverty and inequality has garnered multiple awards. Her first book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. She has also co-edited a book on southern labor history with Matthew Hild (Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power, University Press of Florida, Summer 2018), and is currently conducting research for books on radical black resistance during Reconstruction, and on the role of sheriffs and police in the nineteenth century South.

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