Martin Luther King Jr. knew there would be little civil rights for African Americans until they were also granted a greater measure of economic rights. The issue of civil rights is inextricably tied to economic rights. He devoted more and more energy to this work in the last years of his life. In the weeks leading up to his assassination, he was hard at work organizing a new march on Washington known as the “Poor People’s Campaign.” The goal was to erect a tent city on the National Mall, that, would dramatize the reality of joblessness and deprivation. He wanted to, in great symbolic fashion, bring those excluded from the economy to the veritable doorstep of the leaders of our nation. He was killed before he could see the effort through.
Yes, the Poor People’s Campaign still took place, some six weeks after King’s death. But, without King at the helm the movement lost much of its steam. King’s team, now under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy, decided to reorient the Poor People’s Campaign away from civil disobedience and towards the creation and maintenance of a tent city that became known as “Resurrection City.” 50,000 people participated, a tiny fraction of the numbers that had gathered four years prior to hear the “I Have a Dream speech. To this day, King’s economic dream remains unfulfilled.
King hadn’t shifted his focus to economic issues late in his career as a superficial reading of history might suggest. The financial plight of poor people and general and African Americans in particular were an intrinsic part of his work from day one. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the first demonstrations of the power of mass organization to influence public policy and a seminal event in the civil rights movement, owed its effectiveness to its economic impact. When the Montgomery Improvement Association, under the leadership of its young and inexperienced minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., plotted its strategy to change the segregation policies of public transportation, they utilized the collective purchasing power of African Americans. They knew they wouldn’t have to throw any punches or resort to violence. They simply hit the Montgomery Bus Line where it counted – in the pocketbook.
Economic issues seemed to always be a part and parcel of King’s thinking, whatever the issue before him. Whether you agree or disagree with his economic views, there’s no denying that he was a sophisticated economic thinker and well versed in the subject.
Even the moment generally regarded as the pinnacle of King’s career, known to posterity as the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, can be seen as not so much ideological as it was financial. Why do I say that? Well, the campaign that brought King to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day was officially called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” In the text of “I Have a Dream” he used the metaphor of a bad check to demonstrate the economic injustice that so many faced. He took a complex problem and translated it into practical pocketbook terminology:
“We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that bank of justice is bankrupt.” King frequently spoke in household financial terms, language that everyone understood, so that his message would resonate broadly.
Its almost impossible to listen to any sermon or speech King gave without hearing words and ideas that touched on economic issues. Yes, he could relate issues in terms that common folk could relate to, but the scope of his thinking extended much more broadly to the macroeconomic landscape. He knew that to bring about sustained change, one had to adopt sustainable, systemic measures. In an oft quoted sermon he gave on the Parable of the Good Samaritan the day before he was killed, King suggested just that. Its well and good to stop and assist a man that lies in a ditch along the Jericho Road, but King implies how much better it would have been if the Priest and the Levite had not just stopped and helped the man, but organized a Jericho Road Improvement Association. In other words, worked to effect some sort of systemic change make sure folks weren’t beaten up in the first place.
So what, exactly, was King’s economic dream? In short, he wanted the government to eradicate poverty by providing every American a guaranteed, middle-class income. He laid out his case for a guaranteed income in his final book, 1967’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In it he castigated Washington’s previous efforts to fight poverty, saying that government efforts to fight poverty were too small and too disorganized. He called them “piecemeal and pygmy.” He wrote, “the programs of the past all have another common failing—they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.” Better housing, better education, and better support for families. All good things, but King wanted something much more comprehensive. A guaranteed income. King also advocated for universal health care and education.
King saw that there needed to be some sort of redistribution of economic power. He was a master of rhetoric and parlayed this mastery to drive his point home. In preparation for this sermon I listened to many of the sermons and speeches he gave on economic issues. For me, some of his most persuasive words came from a speech he gave at a small church in Mississippi in 1968 just weeks before his death. This speech is sometimes referred to as King’s “Forty Acres and a Mule speech.
Have any of you ever heard the expression “Forty Acres and A Mule?” How many of you are aware of the significance of that phrase for African Americans? After Emancipation, many freed African Americans believed and were told by various political figures that they had a right to own the land they had long worked as slaves. In the end, forty acres and a mule mostly amounted to a broken promise. Most of the land redistributed under the forty acres allocation ended up being restored to its pre-civil war owners.
The phrase “40 acres and a mule” has come to symbolize the broken promise that Reconstruction policies would offer economic justice for African Americans. It was, perhaps, the closest our country ever came to making some some sort of fair and equitable reparations to African Americans. To some effort at redistribution of wealth.
Here are the words from that speech that so impacted me: “At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its White peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we are faced with and this is a reality.”
King expressed a very similar sentiment on other occasions. Once when speaking to a labor union he said, “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
It would be hard for any reasonably intelligent observer of the economic scene of that time, or even more so of today’s, to disagree with King’s sentiment.
It was time, he believed, for a more straightforward approach: the government needed to make sure every American had a reasonable income.
Many historians have described King as a “democratic socialist.” According to the Democratic Socialists of America, this describes someone who believes the economy should be shaped “to meet public needs” and “not to make profits for a few.”
There was a time in American politics when calling someone a socialist was a slur. Not anymore, apparently. One of the more popular politicians in recent times is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist who nearly captured the Democratic nomination for president. According to a 2016 Harvard University poll, 51% of young Americans — 18- to-29-year-olds — oppose capitalism. And a poll conducted the next year by YouGov found that most American millennials preferred to live in a socialist country than a capitalist one.
Why do many millennials prefer socialism? Lingering scars from the Great Recession; staggering student debt; the greatest economic inequality since before the Great Depression — all these and the other glaring examples of the dearth of economic opportunity have been cited as reasons.
King had similar misgivings in his day. In a stirring speech he gave to the sanitation workers in Memphis as the Poor People’s Campaign started, he said, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger? What does it profit a man to be able to eat at the swankest integrated restaurant when he doesn’t even earn enough money to take his wife out to dine? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?”
How radical was King’s vision? He spelled out it on many occasions:
In 1964, after traveling to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, King said:
“In both Norway and Sweden, whose economies are literally dwarfed by the size of our affluence and the extent of our technology, they have no unemployment and no slums. There, men, women and children have long enjoyed free medical care and quality education. This contrast to the limited, halting steps taken by our rich nation deeply troubled me.”
In a 1966 speech to his staff, he said:
“There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
In 1967 in his book, “Where Do We Go from Here,” he wrote: “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.
The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
In 1968, he told a church audience: “It didn’t cost the nation a penny to open lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation a penny to give us the right to vote. But it will cost the nation billions to feed and house all of its citizens. The country needs a radical redistribution of wealth.”
King saw in 1968 — and what we should recognize today — is that it makes no sense to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of inequality. He wanted to assemble a coalition of the dispossessed of all colors and creeds to demand not just an end to discrimination but a change in the way we shares the spoils generated by the powerful economic engine of our economy.
Our society is so much more affluent today than it was in King’s — and even more unequal. Since King’s death, the share of total U.S. income earned by the top 1 percent has more than doubled. In Kings Day CEOs of large corporations made 20 times the amount of its average worker. Today they often make in excess of 200 times. Studies indicate there is less economic mobility in the United States than in most other developed countries. The American dream is, in many ways, now only a distant memory.
What can we do? First, when we remember MLK for those brief and shining moments in August of 1963 as he stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, let us not forget the real substance of his dream was equality of economic opportunity. A vision that, in many ways, we are further from realizing than ever. He saw inequality as a fundamental and tragic flaw in this society. Our country will require a whole new set of dream weavers for us to even start the process of correcting these glaring inequalities and set our vision on a future that even begins to address these inequalities and starts to balance the economic opportunities. I don’t think we all have to come to agreement on economic theory or on basic human nature and human motivation to recognize that the benefits of our present system are glaringly unbalanced and unfair. I don’t think we all have to become Democratic socialists – I didn’t – to realize how inept our current system is at motivating people and rewarding people for what they do and the contribution they make to the well-being and greater good of our society. May we, in whatever small ways we can, be a part of turning things around and making Dr. King’s economic dream a reality. So may it be.
Martin Luther King’s Economic Dream: A Guaranteed Income for All Americans. Jordan Weissman, The Atlantic, August 28, 2013.
The Economics Behind Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech. Kabir Sehgal, Fortune, January, 2016.
MLK’s Call for Economic Justice. Eugene Robinson. Real Clear Politics, Jan 16, 2015.