Martin Luther King Jr: Economic Justice

“What is the job of government? Just to benefit the rich?”

Martin Luther KingThe book, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, (W.W. Norton, 2018) came out April 3—the day before the 50-year anniversary of King’s assassination. The author, historian Michael Honey, makes the case in an interview conducted for MLK Day 2019 that ECONOMIC JUSTICE WAS ALWAYS PART OF MLK JR.’S MESSAGE.

I find it strange that some commenters seem to eschew the idea that MLK was an economic warrior. They tend to believe such an idea is the result of revisionist thinking.

As Honey notes, King “said in Memphis: ‘It’s a crime in a rich nation for people to receive starvation wages.’ That remains a basic issue right now across the country, where it seems like the economy is doing really well but there are millions of people—about 40 million people—in poverty.

“Economically, things for poor people and working-class people are probably worse in some ways now than in his time. The unionized, industrial jobs that created the black middle class in places like Memphis are mostly gone…

“King said the best anti-poverty program is a union. Where you can fight for your own agenda—somebody doesn’t have to hand it to you. But you have to be organized to do that. King always supported unions. He gave his life in that cause, in a sense.

“Many workers in this country recognize King as a labor hero. ‘We can get more together than we can apart,’ King said in Memphis. He always said we have a common destiny, and he put it in an economic framework. And we do need that.”

Eliminate Poverty

Also, from Food for the Hungry, 9 Powerful Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes on Eradicating Poverty. The earliest one cited was from 1961. “As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars.” That was in his American Dream speech.

If you want to truly celebrate Martin Luther King Day, support The Poor People’s Campaign, “a national call for moral revival. As Honey said, the PPC “said everybody should have health care, everybody should have a median level of income—not poverty income, a median level of income, such that you can live a normal life. And education, and housing, and jobs at union wages. King thought the role of government is to bring about social justice.

“To those who say it’s not the government’s job, King would ask, Well, what is the job of government? Just to benefit the rich?”

WHY MLK Jr. was targeted for assassination

MLK’s activism took a turn from… “his campaign for civil rights in the American South — to a much more radical one aimed at the war in Vietnam and poverty.”

mlk targetedLast year, around the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, there was an understandable restatement of the facts surrounding the event. And the obvious question addressed who killed MLK.

This TIME magazine article is typical: What We Know About Why James Earl Ray Killed Martin Luther King Jr. “Fifty years later, some questions linger about why exactly the civil rights leader was targeted and whether the shooter acted alone.”

I have no doubt WHY he was targeted: he didn’t “stay in his lane.” The Intercept noted that his activism took a turn from… “his campaign for civil rights in the American South — to a much more radical one aimed at the war in Vietnam and poverty.” As long as the issue involved castigating those Southern white people, all was well with the liberal establishment.

But Martin had the audacity to, first privately, then publicly denounce the war, and by extension Lyndon Johnson, the President who had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

King “labeled the war an ‘enemy of the poor,’ saying that its budget was draining anti-poverty programs; he also pointed out that it was hypocritical for him to preach nonviolence to activists at home, while watching his government reject that principle abroad. But ultimately his stance came from personal moral conviction and his devoted Christian beliefs.”

Sadly, a half century, the issues have not really changed. A recent article in Common Dreams written by by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis – who I saw recently – and Lindsay Koshgarian addresses this.

The title is “Trump Wants to Give 62 Cents of Every Dollar to the Military. That’s Immoral.” Correctly, it notes: “A budget shows our values more clearly than any tweet, campaign speech, or political slogan.”

Standing against that type of immorality got Dr. King killed. He died exactly one year after his speech at Riverside Church in New York City opposing the war in Indochina.

“James Earl Ray, a career criminal who had briefly served in the U.S. Army, shot the advocate of non-violent resistance. Ray was spotted at the scene and, almost immediately after the killing, his fingerprints were found on the gun. Those prints were already among the FBI’s records for wanted individuals.

But just as Mick Jagger sang about who killed the Kennedys, America’s indifference may have slain the civil rights leader. And it may do so to ourselves.

Comfortable vs challenging: Martin Luther King

“The comfortable Martin Luther King Jr. gave only one speech in his life, and we’re required to quote one line from that one speech.”

Martin Luther King removes burnt crossThis TIME magazine piece from January 2018 struck me:

“In 1963, most Americans disapproved of the [August 28 March on Washington] event, many congressmen saw it as potentially seditious, and law enforcement from local police to the FBI monitored it intensively (under code name Operation Steep Hill).

“Indeed, it was after King’s speech… that the FBI — with President Kennedy’s approval — decided to increase their monitoring of the civil rights leader. With the FBI describing King as ‘demagogic’ and ‘the most dangerous… to the Nation… from the standpoint … of national security,” Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed off on intrusive surveillance of his living quarters, offices, phones, and hotel rooms, as well as those of his associates.”

Also from last year, this Folio Media. piece:

“Which Martin Luther King Jr. will we celebrate? There is a comfortable Martin Luther King Jr. and there is a challenging Martin Luther King Jr.

“The comfortable Martin Luther King Jr. gave only one speech in his life, and we’re required to quote one line from that one speech…

“The challenging Martin Luther King Jr. was a relentless critic of American foreign policy, racism and an economic system which left so many destitute…

“The challenging Martin Luther King Jr. makes us uncomfortable in our complacency and asks that we live out the courage of our convictions.

“The comfortable King has a dream. The challenging King knows the dream has yet to be realized and much work is still to be done.

“The comfortable King is the one we celebrate at the expense of the challenging King.”

In remembering that King became beloved by the broader community only after his death, we are called to continue the fight.

And the struggle seems more dire today than in many years, some of which I was certain, a half-century ago would have been largely resolved by now; inequity in education, voting rights, lack of access to health care, environmental challenges… pick your issues.

So in honor of MLK, please DON’T quote that one line, proclaim “We HAVE overcome”, and become blind for all the work there still is to do. You may be dubbed as “radical”; it would put you in good company.

Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement and The Media

Not only is the promised land he glimpsed still over that mountaintop, the mountain is much higher than any of us could have imagined.

There are uncomfortable parallels between the deaths of Emmett Till and Philando Castile, as the special “Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement, and The Media” pointed out. The special was broadcast on NBC-TV March 24, but I didn’t get a chance to watch it until a week and a half later.

Emmett Till, who narrator Lester Holt suggested every black person in America knows about – is that true? – was a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago who was visiting his uncle in rural Mississippi. He was lynched on August 28, 1955, after a white woman said that she was offended by him in her family’s grocery store. She has only recently recanted that tale.

Philando Castile was shot and killed by a local Minnesota police officer after the car was pulled over on July 6, 2016, with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter in the vehicle.

In the Till case, it was the decision of Emmett’s mother Mamie to allow, nay, insist on photographers to take pictures of her now-misshapen son. In the Castile case, girlfriend Diamond Reynolds had the wherewithal to livestream ten minutes of video via Facebook.

The MLK special also noted the fickle nature of the mainstream press. It was only the black press that covered some of the seminal stories of the civil rights movement, such as the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955/56.

“When MLK’s peaceful protests aren’t covered by the national media in Albany, Georgia, he organized a children’s march in Birmingham, Alabama, making for some of the most powerful, iconic imagery of the civil rights movement.”

In general, the MSM was attracted if the action included white people – the freedom riders, e.g., or they can establish a clear good guy/bad guy narrative, as in the children’s march, when dogs and fire hoses were unleashed.

“Hope & Fury” pointed out the parallels between the bloody Selma march of March 7, 1965, and the demonstrations occurring after some young black children and men, with the social media-savvy demonstrators willing to challenge the accepted narrative in the latter case.

As Arthur noted: “The USA has so very far to go before achieving Dr. King’s dream. Not only is the promised land he glimpsed still over that mountaintop, the mountain is much higher than any of us could have imagined.”

50 years ago: the MLK Jr assassination

The Lorraine Motel, where MLK was killed. It is now a civil rights museum.

If I were a believer in conspiracy theories, I would wonder about this coincidence: on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech against the US involvement in Vietnam, an address that most civil rights leaders opposed because it could threaten his relationship with President Lyndon Johnson. And on April 4, 1968, he was dead.

It was that speech, which I read only after the assassination, that really fueled my own antiwar sentiment, that U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia was imperialistic and that the war diverted resources from domestic programs created to aid the black poor. Further, “we were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

One could note that the struggle in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 wasn’t the mere bigotry in public accommodations, which prompted the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955/56, but about government injustice that provided sanitation workers, all black men, with substandard wages and unsafe working conditions. And that was the city in which MLK died.

I vividly remember the I AM A MAN signs on the nightly news. The strike began on February 12, but it was King’s presence starting on March 18 that really attracted attention. The labor action didn’t end until April 16, 12 days after MLK’s murder.

I was home when I heard the awful news, and almost immediately my father, the late Les Green, went downtown to try to “keep the peace.” He had been involved with something called the Interracial Center at 45 Carroll Street in Binghamton.

In answer to a Facebook query I posted, someone wrote that my dad “was very involved with the kids who hung out there, talking to them, and a little counseling if needed.” Whatever his role might have been, Binghamton did NOT have any “rioting” that night, as many US cities did in that painful period.

In 1970, I got to go by the Lorraine Motel where MLK was killed. It is now a civil rights museum.

While the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. had an effect on me, his death may have had the greater impact.
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Fort Wayne, IN tribute to MLK, April 7, 1968