The forgotten legacy of Martin Luther King? His fight for economic justice | Michael K Honey
Posted onAuthorGary L. ZoellerComments Off on The forgotten legacy of Martin Luther King? His fight for economic justice | Michael K Honey
Fifty years after his assassination in Memphis, how do we remember Martin Luther King Jr?
Popular treatments portray him primarily through his magnificent I Have a Dream speech, delivered at 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 added to the calendar since Memorial Day in 1947. Since then, school assemblies and civic gatherings have often remembered King as an “icon” of colorblind democracy.
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This way of remembering King appeals to a politically diverse audience, including advertisers, educators, the media and elected officials. King’s Day helps us imagine the best kind of country we can be and makes us proud to be Americans.Yet most people have a poor recollection of King and his historical background.
One of the major flaws in how we remember King “is that we call him a civil rights leader,” said activist and pastor James Lawson. “We don’t classify him as a pastor, prophet, theologian, scholar, preacher…and that allows conventional minds across the country to stereotype him and eliminate him from an overall analysis of our society.”
But King offered such an analysis. People know him as a civil rights activist, but he also led a lifelong struggle for economic justice and empowerment for the poor and working class of all colors.
King early on described himself as a “profound advocate of the social gospel” who denounced a capitalist system that put profits and property rights before basic human rights. Beyond his dream of civil rights and voting, there was a demand for every person to have decent food, education, housing, work and income.
Ultimately, his quest was more revolutionary for a nonviolent society beyond racism, poverty, and war.
“There is no inherent difference” between workers, King told the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), one of America’s largest unions, in 1963 Skin color and ethnicity should not divide those working for a living, he says.
“Economic justice,” King continued, demanded “a land where men will not take necessities to give luxuries to the few” and “where all our gifts and resources are not held for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity.”
That same year, King called on President John F Kennedy to honor the emancipation of African Americans from slavery a hundred years earlier. According to King, there should be a new freedom program.
This program was not just about civil rights. The August 28 protest that culminated in King’s I Have a Dream speech was billed 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 equal rights, but also a substantial change in people’s economic and social conditions.
Over the next two years, the country’s passage 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” of fighting for “economic equality”, so that everyone could have a well-paying job or a basic level of income, as well as decent levels of health care, education and of accommodation.
Then, in October 1966, 100,000 copies of a pamphlet called A Freedom Budget for All Americans, with an introduction by King, were distributed by the unions. The Liberty Budget proposed a second New Deal to promote job growth at living wages through public spending on social goods.
In the months leading up to his trip to Memphis in 1968 to participate in a garbage collectors’ strike and his assassination, King had crisscrossed the country for weeks, promoting a multiracial coalition to pressure Congress to reallocates money from the Vietnam War. to money for human needs.
King called it the campaign of the poor and promoted an “economic bill of rights for all Americans”, which included five pillars: meaningful work at living wages; secure and adequate income; access to land; access to capital, especially for the poor and minorities; and the ability of ordinary people to “play a really big role” in government.
It was, King said, a “last ditch” effort to save America from the interrelated evils of racism, poverty, and war.
Historians are constantly researching and reshaping our knowledge of the past, often based on the challenges they face in their time. Although public awareness often focuses on the “first phase” of King’s movement, for civil and voting rights, we now have a plethora of scholarship that sees the “radical” King as “a troublesome hero” who led a movement beyond civil rights toward more fundamental economic and social change.
In our time, when “everything decent and just in American life” is under threat, as King said in his time, we would do well to remember his fight for economic justice as part of the dream of King for a better America that was all-encompassing.
Remembering King’s unfinished fight for economic justice, writ large, might help us better understand the relevance of his legacy to us today. This might help us realize that King’s moral discourse on the gap between “haves and have-nots” resulted from his role in the labor movement as well as 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 walking the streets and sitting in prison cells , or as a passionate man rousing workers at union conventions and on union pickets.
We must also remember him as a man of nonviolence often surrounded by violent police and screaming mobs, and sometimes physically assaulted by white racists.
The nation can honor him now, but we must also remember the right-wing crusade against him in his day as he sought just alternatives to America’s exploitative racial capitalism.
How we remember King matters. It helps us see where we are and understand King’s unfinished agenda for our time.
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