How Dr. King might have responded to current crises of recession, unemployment, and foreclosure.
Published in The Nation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was working hard to get people to Washington, DC. But when he told an audience, “We are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect…. We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago,” the year was not 1963, and his issue was not segregation. Instead, it was 1968, five years after his “I Have a Dream” speech, and now the issue was joblessness and economic deprivation. King was publicizing a new mass mobilization led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a drive known as the Poor People’s Campaign.
In King’s vision of the campaign, thousands of Americans who had been abandoned by the economy would create a tent city on the National Mall, demand action from Congress, and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience until their voices were heard. King argued in one of his last sermons, “if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
The solution, he believed, was to “confront the power structure massively.”
Four decades later, as our country struggles with disappearing jobs and growing desperation, much of the critique of the U.S. economy offered in the Poor People’s Campaign is newly resonant. As the country celebrates Dr. King’s life and legacy, it is an opportune time to ask: How did the reverend approach issues like poverty, unemployment, and economic hardship? And–given that he offered his criticisms amid one of the greatest periods of economic expansion in our country’s history–how might he respond to today’s crises of foreclosure and recession?
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Jobs and Freedom
Schooled at Crozer Theological Seminary in the teachings of the Protestant Social Gospel movement, King’s theological vision included an economic critique. In a November 1956 sermon, King presented an imaginary letter from the apostle Paul to American Christians, which stated, “Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes… God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”
Unfortunately, since then, inequality has only grown. The Economic Policy Institute reports that, in 1962, a family unit in the top one percent of U.S. households had approximately 125 times the wealth of an average household. By 2004, it had risen to 190 times.
Dr. King also linked racial and economic injustice. In 1964, before the Voting Rights Act had passed, he observed in his Nobel Prize speech, “Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed–not only its symptoms but its basic causes.”
Historian Maurice Isserman notes that many Americans who listen annually to excepts of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech are not aware that “the occasion for that speech was officially known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (emphasis added)… [T]he march called for a ‘massive Federal Public Works program to provide jobs for all the unemployed,’ and spoke of the ‘twin evils of discrimination and economic deprivation.'”
King’s focus on economic justice became even sharper in the last years of his life. A noteworthy part of his critique of the Vietnam War was the idea that aggressive foreign interventionism exacted not only a moral cost but also an economic one: spending on the war was undermining President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. In his famous April 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City, King made a damning indictment of a budgetary imbalance that continues to this day: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” he said, “is approaching spiritual death.”
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A Guaranteed Income?
One of King’s most sustained pieces of economic reflection appeared in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here? The work provides an important window onto King’s thinking at the end of his life.
In the book, King articulated a Keynesian, demand-side critique of the American marketplace. He argued, “We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution.” Unless working Americans and the poor were able to obtain good jobs and increase their purchasing power–their ability to pump money back into the economy–it would be sapped of its dynamism. “We must create full employment or we must create incomes,” King wrote. “People must be made consumers by one method or the other.”
King criticized Johnson’s War on Poverty for being too piecemeal. While housing programs, job training, and family counseling were not themselves unsound, he wrote that “all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis… At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived.”
Rather than continuing with “fragmentary and spasmodic reforms, ” King advocated that the government provide full employment. “We need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted,” he wrote. “New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”
For adults who could not find jobs, King promoted the concept of a guaranteed annual income. Arguing against those who believed that a person’s unemployment “indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber,” King wrote, “[W]e realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will.” A just response, King believed, was a guaranteed annual income “pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income.”
Precedents for such a proposal could be found in the writings of canonical American thinkers such as Thomas Paine and Henry George. And by the late 1960s, versions of the idea were being offered by prominent economists including James Tobin, Paul Samuelson, and John Kenneth Galbraith. The A. Philip Randolph Institute’s “Freedom Budget,” developed by Bayard Rustin and economist Leon Keyserling in the mid 1960s, also included a guaranteed income as part of a package of proposals intended to eradicate poverty by 1975. In some versions, enacting a guaranteed income involved expanding and restructuring existing social welfare measures. In other iterations, it took the form of an annual sum that every citizen would receive unconditionally–comparable to the program in Alaska through which every resident receives a yearly, fixed share of the state’s oil revenues.
Isserman cites a 1965 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, in which Dr. King said, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
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To Washington by Mule Cart
The Poor People’s Campaign was conceived to create the political pressure required to enact the types of economic changes that Dr. King and his advisors believed were necessary. “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters,” King said during a February 1968 trip to Mississippi, “but now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.” The same month, he announced to reporters demands for a $30 billion annual investment in antipoverty measures, a government commitment to full employment, enactment of a guaranteed income, and construction of 500,000 affordable housing units per year.
Most of the time, though, King was content to frame the objectives of the Poor People’s Campaign in broad terms. Its purpose, he believed, was to dramatize the reality of joblessness and deprivation by bringing those excluded from the economy to the doorstep of the nation’s leaders. Historian Rick Perlstein cites one of King’s early expressions of his vision, in which the reverend stated, “We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way… and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.'”
Another early proposal that resonates amid our still-unresolved healthcare crisis was offered by advisor Andrew Young, who envisioned having “a thousand people in need of health and medical care sitting in around Bethesda Naval Hospital, so that nobody could get in or out until they get treated. It would dramatize the fact that there are thousands of people in our nation in need of medical services.”
Sadly, the movement’s plans were violently thrown into disarray. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, just weeks before the Poor People’s Campaign was set to commence.
We will never know what the impact of the mobilization might have been if Dr. King had lived. On May 12, in the wake of rioting in more than 100 cities, Rev. Ralph Abernathy led a group of several thousand to Washington, D.C. and set up a shantytown called “Resurrection City” on the Mall. At the height of the Poor People’s Campaign, nearly 7,000 residents and supporters of the camp lobbied Congress and organized events to focus the nation’s attention on poverty.
However, the campaign was plagued by persistent, intense rain that turned Resurrection City into a muddy sprawl. Conflicts over leadership took root. And the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who was becoming an ever more resolute voice for economic justice, further dispirited the encampment. On June 8, shortly before the protestors disbanded, Kennedy’s funeral procession stopped in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Thousands of people, including many from Resurrection City, stood in the light rain and paid their respects, singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
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Arguing, Mobilizing, Agitating
Nearly forty years later, on January 21, 2008, Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama participated in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day debate sponsored by CNN and the Congressional Black Caucus. Each candidate was asked whether Dr. King would endorse his or her campaign if he were alive.
Barack Obama gave the right answer. “I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us,” he said. “I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable… I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that. It was those women who were willing to walk instead of ride the bus, union workers who are willing to take on violence and intimidation to get the right to organize…. Them arguing, mobilizing, agitating, and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable, I think that’s the key.”
A year into the administration, it has become a cliché to say that President Obama needs pressure from an enlivened popular movement if there is to be progressive change in Washington. Yet it would be a disservice to Dr. King to argue otherwise. To those who believed that it was not politically feasible for the Poor People’s Campaign to score a legislative victory, King explained, “Two years before we went into Selma, the Civil Rights Commission recommended that something be done in a very strong manner to eradicate [discrimination]… And yet nothing was done about it until we went to Selma, mounted a movement and really engaged in action geared toward moving the nation away from the course that it was following.”
For King, there was no path to just economic policy except for organizing “to bring pressure to bear on Congress, and to appeal to the conscience and the self-interest of the nation.”
Without people taking action in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s vision, a few Americans may continue to gather inordinate wealth, but many others, thrust against their will into idleness, insecurity, or foreclosure by today’s crisis, will have little recourse but to wait for relief from a capricious and uncertain economy.