MLK: Justice Mandates Economic Transformation

Patrick D. Jones
NFP State Board Member 

The following article appeared in The Omaha World-Herald: Columns - Midlands Voices on January 25, 2010. The writer is an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the author of “The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee” (Harvard University Press).

If we are serious about developing a more humane economic system in the wake of our nation’s ongoing woes, perhaps we should reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” of economic justice.

Economic rights were always important to King’s vision of a more just society. But following the historic legislative victories of the mid-1960s, he turned his attention more squarely toward the enduring problems of economic inequality.

“I still have a dream,” he explained, “that one day all of God’s children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture for their minds and freedom for their spirits.”

King rejected the growth model of development, noting that even during periods of sustained growth, poverty remained pervasive. Progress is meaningless, he said, when the economy expands and stock values rise but millions of people remain unemployed or underpaid, without health care, a pension or economic security.

King criticized corporate welfare and “business control” of the state, describing the American system as “socialism for the rich and free markets for the poor.” Congress, he complained, mainly passed laws to “make the rich richer.”

King believed poverty was primarily the result of systemic economic failure and “ongoing economic exploitation,” not individual personal failing. The poor were “damned” to segregated, ghettoized neighborhoods, chronic unemployment and low-paying, meaningless jobs. “Pervasive and persistent want” demoralized the poor, undermined human dignity and led to family disintegration, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and crime.

King linked urban poverty with suburban plenty. “The poor and discriminated huddle in the big cities,” he said, “while affluent America displays its new gadgets in the crisp homes of suburbia.” King called suburbs “white nooses around the black necks of the cities.” “Housing deteriorates in central cities,” he groused, while “suburbs expand with little regard for what happens to the rest of America.”

King chided whites’ fixation on the symptoms of urban poverty, claiming it obscured economic inequality’s structural roots. “The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society,” he asserted. “Negroes live in them but do not make them.”

Crime, drug use and violence in poor urban neighborhoods were, in King’s view, “derivative” transgressions compared with the crimes of policy-makers who constructed the unequal system.

King decried the connection between poverty and militarism, warning, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” To him, racism, militarism, materialism and economic exploitation were tied up in a system of oppression.

Disillusioned with piecemeal reforms, King believed structural change in the economy was essential to ending poverty. “True compassion,” he said, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

King held little faith in science and technology as saviors, arguing “a revolution in values” was critical to fundamental change. The nation must place “democratic principles and justice above privilege.”

King advocated “democratic socialism,” a mixed economy where citizens, through democratic processes, insert human values into the economy to temper the harsh edges of unbridled free markets.

He fought for an “economic bill of rights,” a $30 billion package guaranteeing full employment, a livable income and increased construction of low-income housing. King called for “massive public works programs (to build) decent housing, schools, hospitals, mass transit, parks and recreation centers.” These public investments would “enrich society” and spur private investment.

Full employment would end poverty, stabilize families and stem the growth of urban ghettos. It was “dignifying” for the poor and consonant with national values, like work, self-help and opposition to welfare dependency. “Freed from the smothering prison of poverty,” King explained, “people could chart their own path and fully realize their human potential.”

But King also knew that his dream of economic justice would require massive mobilization of political pressure to compel those in power to act. To that end, he began organizing an inter-racial movement of the poor and working class to descend on Washington and demand change.

“We will be greatly misled if we feel that the problem will work itself out,” he cautioned. “Structures of evil do not crumble by passive waiting” but “require the battering rams of justice.”

Tragically, King’s assassination, coupled with the rise of a new conservatism, dealt a terrible blow to his dream of economic justice. Over the ensuing decades, the problems of poverty, materialism, militarism and racial inequality have persisted.

In an era of ballooning military budgets, billion-dollar Wall Street bailouts, home foreclosures, double-digit unemployment and continuing urban crisis, perhaps we might listen anew to King’s prophetic vision of economic justice.

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