Martin Luther King Jr. and the Unfinished Business of Ending Poverty

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. warned in a trial writing shortly before his assassination on April 4, 1968, that the turmoil and growing anxiety in a deeply unequal and deeply divided country could lead to a situation where “we will end up with a kind of right-wing takeover in the cities and a developing fascism, which will be terribly detrimental to the whole nation.

To deal with the crisis, Dr King said: “We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job for everyone who wants to work and is able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all those who are unable to work. Some people are too young, some are too old, some are physically handicapped, and yet to live they need an income.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who that spring was organizing a campaign of the poor to advance this agenda, introduced an investment program in housing and education. And at a time of massive protests against the Vietnam War, King used his 1968 essay to denounce “a tragic mix of priorities” that has seen the United States “spend all this money on death and destruction, and not enough money on life and constructive development”.

It is King’s message that is essential to remember today, as we recall the life and legacy of a proudly militant advocate for racial, social and economic justice. For King and his great ally, A.Philip Randolph (the labor leader who led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), the years following the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were spent promoting the full agenda of the march and movement.

Organizers kept pushing for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. But they didn’t stop there. They kept making demands. Along with other key figures of the March on Washington, such as the brilliant organizer Bayard Rustin, labor allies and leading economists, they returned to the White House in 1965 and 1966 to outline a “Freedom Budget for All Americans,which sought these results over ten years:

  1. To provide full employment to all who want and can work, including those who need education or training to make them willing and able.
  2. Ensure decent and adequate wages for all who work.
  3. Ensure a decent standard of living for those who cannot or must not work.
  4. To eliminate slum ghettos and provide decent housing for all Americans.
  5. To provide decent medical care and adequate educational opportunities for all Americans, at a cost they can afford.
  6. Purify our air and water and develop our transportation and natural resources on a scale that meets our growing needs.
  7. Combine sustained full employment with sustained full production and strong economic growth.

The Freedom Budget was a visionary document that declared, in Randolph’s words, that “we come together on common ground of determination that in this society, the richest and most productive ever known to man, the scourge of poverty can and must be abolished, and not in the distant future, not in this generation, but in the next ten years!

The language and ambitions of the Freedom Budget anticipated today’s messages echoing through the halls of Congress in speeches by California Rep. Barbara Lee, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Minnesota Ilhan Omar and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as the chair of Reverend William Barber II.

It is good to recognize how visionary King, Randolph and Rustin were. But we must also recognize how frustrating it is that the work of the 1960s remains unfinished in the 2020s.

Amid the wreckage of the fight for President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, it’s essential to understand that there was nothing particularly drastic about the plan, which West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and d other so-called “centrist” Democrats have gone off the rails. It was a modest investment in the agenda that King said was necessary to avoid the societal divisions, violence and fascist threats that concerned the civil rights leader more than 50 years ago — and which concern conscientious Americans today. .

The Democrats had the power in the mid-1960s – control of the White House and both houses of Congress – but they failed to realize the full promise of King’s moving plea in his March on Washington speech: “transform the resounding discords of our nation in a beautiful symphony of fraternity.

King’s language was poetic, but he spoke of the need for a practical program. In his Freedom Budget presentation, King made a political case for a multi-racial, multi-ethnic movement to end poverty based on the budget program.

The long road ahead demands that we focus on the needs of all of America’s poor, for there is no way to simply find work, or adequate housing, or quality inclusive schools for Blacks alone. We’ll eliminate slums for niggers as we tear down ghettos and build new towns for all. We will eliminate black unemployment when we demand full and fair employment for all. We will produce an educated and skilled black mass when we achieve a 20th century education system for all.

The main argument was that housing, health care and education should be understood and promoted as human rights. “This focus on human rights is an integral part of the freedom budget,” King wrote, arguing that it “sets, I believe, a new and creative tone to the great challenge we still face. confronted”.

There are those calling today for a reversal of the bold agendas set out by the President and progressive congressional leaders, including Senator Sanders, who was instrumental in crafting the Build Back Better agenda. They dismiss talk of ending poverty as fiscally unrealistic and utopian. But Democratic lawmakers and pundits pushing for a more cautious, piecemeal approach would do well to consider King’s advice.

“It is not enough to project the Freedom Budget. We must devote ourselves to the legislative task so that it will be immediately and fully accomplished,” he warned in 1966. “The liberty budget is essential if the black people are to make further progress. This is essential if we want to maintain social peace. It is a political necessity. »

Maria D. Ervin