Martin Luther King was a champion of economic justice and repeatedly spoke about the disparities in American society.
In 1967, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) started planning a demonstration that would bring thousands of working poor to the National Mall in Washington D.C. They called it the “Poor People’s Campaign,” and with it they hoped to highlight the economic disparities in American society. De-segregation was only the first step on the road to justice, but King and the SCLC knew that with racial justice must come economic justice. He told a crowd in 1967, “I think it is absolutely necessary now to deal massively and militantly with the economic problem … This is why in SCLC we came up with the idea of going to Washington, the seat of government, to dramatize the gulf between promise and fulfillment, to call attention to the gap between the dream and the realities, to make the invisible visible.”
On March 18, 1968, just days before his murder Dr. King spoke to a crowd of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. “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?” he asked. “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? So, we assemble here tonight… to say, ‘We are tired. We are tired of being at the bottom. We are tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. We are tired of our children having to attend overcrowded, inferior, qualityless schools. We are tired of having to live in dilapidated, substandard housing conditions where we don’t have wall to wall carpet, but so often end up with wall to wall rats and roaches. We are tired…smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”
King wouldn’t live to see the Poor People’s Campaign come to fruition. Despite King’s murder, the SCLC, now headed by Ralph Abernathy, went ahead with the campaign. On Mother’s Day, 1968, thousands of women led by Coretta Scott King came to Washington D.C., demanding economic justice. Protesters erected tents and shacks on the National Mall calling the encampment Resurrection City. Through rain and mud, they made daily trips to the headquarters of national agencies to make their demands. On June 6th, 1968, Robert Kennedy, then a senator from New York and supporter of the campaign, was assassinated in Los Angeles. His funeral procession passed through Resurrection City. Protesters continued to camp out on the Mall until June 24, when the Department of the Interior forced the camp to close because their permit to use the park had expired.
King’s calls for economic equality are best explained in his book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? “, the last book he would write before his murder. In it, and in a speech of the same name he gave to the annual SCLC conference in Atlanta, he spoke about his vision of economic justice.
“I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? ” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.
“There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.
“When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised.
“And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” These are words that must be said.
“Now, don’t think you have me in a bind today. I’m not talking about communism. What I’m talking about is far beyond communism. …Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social.
“And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.
“What I’m saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, “America, you must be born again!”
“And so, I conclude by saying today that we have a task, and let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction.
“Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.
“Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.
“Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.
“Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.
“Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.
“Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.
“Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied.”
Happy Martin Luther King Day.