Martin Luther King, Jr.'s plan for class struggle
"If this country does not see its poor — if it lets them remain in their poverty and misery — it will surely go to hell!"
Martin Luther King, Jr. died in Memphis standing in solidarity with a sanitation workers’ strike. But at the time of his murder, he was planning something bigger for later in the year. And the week before the assassination, my grandfather met with King and his lieutenants to preview their agenda for the coming months, publishing an article titled “Dr King’s March on Washington, Part II.”
I posted this excerpt last year, but I’m going to post it again because (1) it’s my newsletter, (2) some of you may not have been subscribers back then, and (3) it’s sometimes good to commemorate holidays in repetitive ways:
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 think this is quite different from — and much better than — both the washed-out version of MLK that you can from conservatives and the Tema Okun version of racial justice politics that has become faddish recently.
Hoover tapped his phones. The Birchers alleged he was a communist. But no one had the smoking gun evidence that he was a bent on subverting capitalism.
Until he quoted the Gospel of Luke.
"and I tell you if this country does not see its poor" is quite telling but also poses a real moral question. To what extent are the rich responsible only to the poor of "this country" as opposed to poor who inhabit this planet. Effective altruism is clearly tilted towards the latter. And globalism and free trade, arguably, have done far more to improve the lives of the truly poor, across countries, than any redistribution efforts within a rich country. It's a question supposed progressives shy away from but it's important to be honest about the outcome they desire.