Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final unfinished struggle
“In a sense, you could say we are engaged in the class struggle, yes.”
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and I think it’s become customary on MLK Day speeches to remark that his transformation from oft-unpopular movement leader to birthday-celebrated icon has tended to involve washing out the radical elements of King’s thought.
I often think on this day of an article my grandfather published in the March 31, 1968 issue of The New York Times Magazine.
Titled, “It May Be a Long, Hot Spring in the Capital: Dr King’s March on Washington, Part II,” it was a curtain-raiser for a world we never got to live in because King was assassinated the following week. But the story took us inside SCLC headquarters in Atlanta where King and his lieutenants were planning a second March on Washington as the next phase of their Poor People’s Campaign — intended as a disruptive but non-violent multiracial demand for economic justice.
It captures some of what was on King’s mind shortly before he died:
A few minutes later, in Dr. King’s office on the other side of a thin partition, an office no larger than Young’s and much more cluttered, I asked King also if he hadn’t abandoned moral issues for the class struggle. He was in shirt sleeves and had leaned back in his chair, one arm raised, tapping his head lightly with his hand, a favorite position with him. Now he leaned forward and spoke directly, a manner I was to find customary with him, so that interviewers seldom have to rephrase questions; he responds to the tone and level of the question but also, as if fulfilling a personal need, to implications that at first do not seem implicit in the question: an intellectual curiosity that gives the effect of total sincerity.
“In a sense, you could say we are engaged in the class struggle, yes,” he said. He explained that the gains for which the civil-rights movement had fought had not cost anyone a penny, whereas now — “It will be a long and difficult struggle, for our program calls for a redistribution of economic power. Yet this isn’t a purely materialistic or class concern. I feel that this movement in behalf of the poor is the most moral thing — it is saying that every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth.”
Although we went on to talk of other things, this question remained with him, and I heard him the next night, at a church in Birmingham, expand on it. There he continued with a discussion of the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. Lazarus had not gone to heaven simply because he was poor, King argued, nor was the rich man to hell because he was rich. “No, the rich man was punished because he passed Lazarus every day and did not see him … and I tell you if this country does not see its poor — if it lets them remain in their poverty and misery — it will surely go to hell!”
In his office, however, I quoted to him a New York radical who had said that Dr. King’s political problems derive from the fact that his present support comes from middle-class Negro churches and organizations: they would oppose his new tack. Has there been opposition?
He shook his head. “When we began discussing this thing last fall, we expected there would be opposition — from the timid supplicants and from the ultra militants.”
He shook his head again.
“In a sense, you could say we are waging a consensus fight. The Harris Poll recently showed that 68 percent want a program to supply jobs to everyone who wants to work, and 64 percent want slums eradicated and rebuild by the people of the community — which means a great many new jobs.”
I don’t want to spoil the day with too many hot takes except to say that in my view, progressive thought has not really advanced beyond King.
The United States of America is a very wealthy society and it has a profound obligation to do more to lift up the most disadvantaged among us, and that means concerted political action in favor of politically popular policies that deliver tangible material benefits to people in need.
Hope everyone enjoys the long weekend.
I think in a sense we have actually probably taken at least a half step backwards as the Left has both lost their alliance with organized labor and continues to abandon the disorganized labor we are left with because they allow the neoliberal establishment to partner with the GOP to erode the ability of labor to freely organize. The Left has also to a large degree lost the rural poor and particularly the White Southern rural poor and small farmers who made common cause with the Reverend Doctor King. The assassination of Doctor King, it could be argued, led to the final unraveling of the New Deal coalition.
Thank you for the link to your Grandfather’s article. A fitting read as we remember Doctor King today.
Three thoughts from a historian on Dr. King. First while you are thinking about the forgotten parts of Dr. King's program, Matt, you should pay attention to the campaign in Chicago. It was all over the questions of housing and access that interest you, and I assume it was part of what Dr. King was thinking about in his comments at the end of the article.
Second, Dr. King had taken his hard anti-war/Vietnam turn by 1968, and he tied those issues pretty explicitly to the politics of both redistribution and race. Money is not perfectly redistributable; it's not clear that money not spent in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last twenty years would have been available to spend elsewhere in the government (maybe that money just doesn't get borrowed/created). But given the size of the spending packages that the Biden administration is proposing, it seems like it would have been nice not to have blown all that blood and treasure elsewhere.
Finally, if you haven't listened to the last three minutes of his final speech (the "Mountain" speech), you should. I always have students listen to it. Then I get them to work out the Biblical reference, which a lot of them usually don't know. Then I play it again. It is King as prophet. He knew--not in a general way, but in a somehow very direct, visceral way--what was coming.