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Martin Luther King's Forgotten Legacy? His Fight for Economic Justice

The King we rarely talk about fought to remake America’s political and economic system from the ground up.

MLK Momument
he Stone of Hope statue at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington DC. ,Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Fifty years after he was assassinated in Memphis, how should we remember Martin Luther King Jr?

Popular treatments primarily portray him through his magnificent I Have a Dream speech, delivered before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. King called on America to live up to its historic ideals of equal rights in which all people would be defined by the “content of their character” and not the color of their skin.

Twenty-three years later, Congress declared King’s birthday a national holiday, the first one added to the calendar since Memorial Day in 1947. Since then, school assemblies and civic gatherings have often remembered King as an “icon” for color-blind democracy.

This way of remembering King appeals to a politically diverse audience, including advertisers, educators, the mass media and elected officials. The King holiday helps us to imagine the best kind of country we could be and makes us proud to be Americans. Yet most people misremember King and his historical context.

One major failing in how we remember King “is our typing of him as a civil rights leader,” the activist and pastor James Lawson says. “We do not type him as a pastor, prophet, theologian, scholar, preacher … and that allows conventional minds across the country to thereby stereotype him and eliminate him from an overall analysis of our society.”

But King offered just such an analysis. People know him as a civil rights advocate, but he also waged a lifelong struggle for economic justice and the empowerment of poor and working-class people of all colors.

King early on described himself as a “profound advocate of the social gospel” who decried a capitalist system that put profits and property rights ahead of basic human rights. Beyond his dream of civil and voting rights lay a demand that every person have adequate food, education, housing, a decent job and income.

Ultimately, his was a more revolutionary quest for a nonviolent society beyond racism, poverty and war.

“There is no intrinsic difference” between workers, King told the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), one of America’s most important trade unions, in 1963. Skin color and ethnicity should not divide those who work for a living, he said.

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“Economic justice,” King went on, required “a land where men will not take necessities to give luxuries to the few,” and “where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity.”

That same year, King was calling on President John F Kennedy to honor the emancipation of African Americans from slavery one hundred years before. There ought, King said, to be a new freedom agenda.

This agenda was not only about civil rights. The 28 August demonstration that culminated in King’s I Have a Dream speech was publicized as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was the result of many years of organizing by black workers and their unions.

In his speech, King said the nation had given former slaves a “bad check” – a promise of freedom that had not materialized. Generations later, his dream was not only for equal rights but also for a substantive change in people’s economic and social conditions.

Over the next two years, the country’s adoption of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act completed a “first phase” of the freedom movement, King said. Now he wanted a “second phase” struggle for “economic equality”, so that everyone could have a well-paying job or a basic level of income, along with decent levels of healthcare, education and housing.

Then, in October 1966, 100,000 copies of a booklet called A Freedom Budget for All Americans, with an introduction by King, were distributed by the unions. The Freedom Budget proposed a second New Deal to promote job growth at living wages through public spending on social goods.

In the months before he travelled to Memphis in 1968 to participate in a garbage-workers’ strike and was assassinated, King had been criss-crossing the country for weeks, promoting a multi-racial coalition to pressure Congress to reallocate money from the Vietnam war to money for human needs.

King called it the Poor People’s Campaign, and it promoted an “economic bill of rights for all Americans”, which included five pillars: a meaningful job at a living wage; a secure and adequate income; access to land; access to capital, especially for poor people and minorities; and the ability for ordinary people to “play a truly significant role” in the government.

It was, King said, a “last ditch” effort to save America from the interrelated evils of racism, poverty and war.

Historians constantly search for and reshape our knowledge of the past, often based on the challenges they face in their own times. Although public awareness often focuses on King’s “first phase” of the movement, for civil and voting rights, we now have a plethora of scholarship that sees the “radical” King as “an inconvenient hero” who led a movement beyond civil rights to more fundamental economic and social change.

In our own time, when “everything decent and fair in American life” is under threat, as King said it was in his time, we might do well to remember his fight for economic justice as part of King’s dream for a better America that was all encompassing.

Remembering King’s unfinished fight for economic justice, broadly conceived, might help us to better understand the relevance of his legacy to us today. It might help us to realize that King’s moral discourse about the gap between the “haves and the have-nots” resulted from his role in the labor movement as well as in the civil rights movement.

In addition to remembering the eloquent man in a suit and tie at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, we should also remember King as a man sometimes dressed in blue jeans marching on the streets and sitting in jail cells, or as an impassioned man rousing workers at union conventions and on union picket lines.

We must also remember him as a man of nonviolence often surrounded by violent police and screaming mobs, and at times physically assaulted by white racists.

The nation may honor him now, but we should also remember the rightwing crusade against him in his own time as he sought just alternatives to America’s exploitative racial capitalism.

How we remember King matters. It helps us to see where we have been and to understand King’s unfinished agenda for our own times.

  • Adapted from To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice by Michael K Honey. Copyright © 2018 by Michael K Honey. With permission of the publisher, WW Norton, Inc. All rights reserved.  Portside thanks Michael K. Honey for permission to reprint.