Martin Luther King Jr.'s push for material redistribution
A gospel of solidarity, not "colorblindness"
No new content today in observation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, but we’ve been going long enough that we’re now making it our practice to use these federal holidays to un-paywall classic Slow Boring content.
On this particular day, it seems fitting to re-run a post about MLK that I ran in early July of 2021. I think for understandable and mostly good reasons, King has become a part of America’s civic religion where his function is to stand for the idea that the Jim Crow system was bad and that it’s good that we got rid of it decades ago. But he was an influential figure in his time thanks to the strength of his ideas, and there’s utility in trying to study what those ideas actually were.
One now-common discourse move is for conservatives to invoke Martin Luther King as part of their campaign against modern-day anti-racism concepts, as when Tom Cotton recently grilled military officers about the armed forces’ diversity training programs.
“Why can’t we replay Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘content of character and not the color of our skin’ speech?’” he asked.
But it’s not just Cotton and not just the military. The campaign against what conservatives have decided to call “critical race theory” is soaked in invocations of this King statement, and I expect we’ll hear more about it as the Harvard affirmative action case inevitably finds its way to the Supreme Court.
I can’t claim to be a true King completist, but what is true is that to the extent that I’ve been able to study King’s writings and speeches, I don’t really think he had anything at all to say about the nexus of issues that now flies under the heading “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” It does not really seem to have been something that was on his mind. But while I think you can’t object too much to the flattening of King into a blander, less radical figure than he really was as part of his elevation into the canon of national heroes, I do think it’s right and proper to object to invoking him as an apostle of pure individualism.
King’s speeches had more lines than just that one. And he didn’t retire after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And his actual ideas were, I think, superior to what is being pushed by both modern-day DEI devotees and their critics — what he wanted was a significant redistribution of economic resources to create a society of equals.
A dream of substantive equality
What I think Cotton favors is the kind of formal equality of opportunity that was known in the era of the French Revolution as “careers open to talents.”
In pre-Revolutionary France, in other words, only people of noble blood could hold certain positions of prestige and influence — notably including service as commissioned officers in the military. This was abolished in the early, relatively non-radical days of the Revolution, and it became part of its enduring legacy throughout the 19th century.
But it’s important to note that this kind of formal equality mostly characterized the United States before the civil rights revolution. The pre-Brown understanding was that separate accommodations were permissible as long as they were “separate but equal.” Black people were de facto disenfranchised across the South, but the basis for disenfranchisement was facially race-neutral. There was no “Black people can’t vote” law on the books. By the same token, when Clifton Wharton Sr. became the first Black Foreign Service Officer in the 1920s, he didn’t need to get any laws repealed. Nor was there ever a “no Black CEOs in the Fortune 500” law. There just weren’t any such CEOs until Wharton’s son was appointed to lead TIAA-CREF — which didn’t happen until 1987.
So that’s the context for King’s speech. There was legally entrenched segregation in the south, but officially the facilities have to be equal, and Black plaintiffs could sometimes win cases about this. In the north, there mostly isn’t legally entrenched segregation. But mysteriously, even up north there are no Black university presidents, no Black CEOs of major companies, and tremendous amounts of de facto residential segregation.
King says that “now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” And he addresses people who ask what exactly he wants:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
He says later: “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
Near the end, King quotes from the Book of Isaiah’s vision of Israel’s fall and then redemption:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
Not to belabor the point, but it’s a dramatic speech.
Sometimes politicians give speeches where they try to shrink the conceptual scope of their agenda, describing it as just some “common-sense reforms” or whatever. But King isn’t doing that. He’s not saying “equal access to all public accommodations, whether run by the government or private enterprise — what’s the big deal?”
He’s saying this is a very big deal, and he’s also saying very clearly that the issue extends beyond the public accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act. He wants real access to the ballot, not just a requirement that voter suppression measures be facially race-neutral. And he’s talking about conditions in the North as well as conditions in the south. And he’s talking about generating meaningful economic opportunities. It’s called the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.
The Freedom Budget
I think it’s reasonably well known that after the Civil Rights Act in ’64 and the Voting Rights Act in ’65, King went on to speak out against the Vietnam War and to launch something he called the Poor People’s Campaign.
But I belabor some of those points of the I Have A Dream speech just to underscore that the themes of economic justice and substantive equality were there from the beginning. King was from the south, most of the Black population lived in the south, the most egregious acts of racism were in the south, and the most intransigent politicians were from the south, so the south was a big focus of his work. But he’s saying in Cotton’s favorite speech that the situation in “the slums and ghettos of our northern cities” is unacceptable.
In 1966, King writes an introduction to a proposal that Bayard Rustin calls the “Freedom Budget.”
It’s a plan, essentially, for massive government-led investment to eradicate poverty and generate full employment. You could think of it potentially as what the US government could have tried to do in the mid-1960s instead of the big military buildup in Vietnam. And while I think you could take issue with some of the technical elements of Rustin’s program, his basic vision — improved public services, an enhanced welfare state, a robust commitment to full employment — is exactly what I think a sound political vision looks like.
And here’s a bit of King’s introduction:
After many years of intense struggle in the courts, in legislative halls, and on the streets, we have achieved a number of important victories. We have come far in our quest for respect and dignity. But we have far to go.
The long journey ahead requires that we emphasize the needs of all America’s poor, for there is no way merely to find work, or adequate housing, or quality-integrated schools for Negroes alone. We shall eliminate slums for Negroes when we destroy ghettos and build new cities for all. We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for all. We shall produce an educated and skilled Negro mass when we achieve a twentieth century educational system for all.
Now obviously, conservatives don’t agree with those ideas and that’s fine.
But if you want to understand why racial justice advocates aren’t satisfied with the “judge by the content of character” nostrum, it’s because King’s version of that dream was the endpoint of a program of massive material redistribution to build a radically more egalitarian society.
Class struggle, not DEI initiatives
Right before King was murdered, my grandfather interviewed him for a magazine article about the Poor People’s Campaign. It was a really big moment for grandpa and he spoke about this stuff with me when I was a kid. King was saying at the end that the moral fervor of the civil rights movement needed to go in the direction of “class struggle” and “redistribution of economic power,” and that America risked damnation over its indifference to the fate of the poor.
Here’s Jose Yglesias in 1968:
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!”
Looking back at this from the vantage point of 2021, I’m struck by a few things:
We have made some progress on these issues since 1968, but honestly not all that much — though the full impact of changes that were adopted earlier in the Johnson administration was maybe not yet known.
We are actually on the verge of a massive breakthrough in reducing child poverty if we can extend and improve the American Rescue Plan’s Child Tax Credit provisions.
There’s nothing here about microaggressions or diversity training or the difference between equity and equality.
All in all, it’s a very populist, straightforward vibe.
It’s also self-consciously radical — King doesn’t talk like a politician who’s trying to be seen as moderate — and King was an unpopular figure in his day. Today we tend to telescope the Civil Rights Era. But there were constant bouts of racial progress in mid-century America from the appointment of the first Black general in 1940, to Jackie Robinson in 1947, to Truman ordering military integration in 1948, and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The ’64 Civil Rights Act is preceded by the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and then the Civil Rights Act of 1960. White America wanted to be congratulated on all this rather than told the current trajectory of the country was leading to deserved damnation. King was not running for office, so he did not really cater to that desire for congratulation.
Solidarity, not “colorblindness”
To make a long story short, the whole point of King’s work in the 1960s was to tackle entrenched structural injustice. The conservative movement, at the time, opposed him in the name of federalism, free markets, and the idea that facially race-neutral laws are all that one can reasonably ask for. And the conservative movement today largely stands by those ideas.
In its most recent voting rights case, the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court held that it’s fine to adopt ballot access restrictions that disproportionately impact Black and Latino citizens as long as race is not the specific means selected for disenfranchisement. This is exactly how poll taxes and literacy tests worked before the Voting Rights Act. And it’s even true that pre-VRA restrictions on access to the ballot did in fact disenfranchise plenty of white people too.
Now obviously in life, it’s perfectly fair to agree with a historical figure about some things and not other things. But what I’m trying to say here is that King’s views on economic justice are not a separate thing from his view of the civil rights situation. It’s in the very same speech that he says the “content of their character” thing that he’s talking about the inadequacy of moving people from ghetto to ghetto and the intolerability of the situation in the northern cities.
At the same time, it seems to me that compared to a lot of currently popular trends on the left, King is trying to stay tolerably within the bounds of American patriotism. In the “I Have a Dream Speech,” he refers to the Declaration of Independence as a “promissory note” on which “America has defaulted … insofar as her citizens of color are concerned” but also that “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” He thinks the promise of America is good and that the country has the resources to deliver on that promise, and has gathered a crowd at an important national monument to ask nothing more or less than what is promised in the nation’s founding documents and celebrated in its monuments.
He’s also preaching a powerful doctrine of solidarity.
He is, in particular, not lecturing lower-class white people about how privileged they are or about how they need to situate their class oppression in an intersectional matrix. He is saying that racism is bad and that working together, they could build a more just and more free world. And he’s talking about economic issues — schools, housing, jobs — not because he has a “class reductionist” approach, but because he is trying to speak to and for the working-class Black majority.