Today, as we remember the 46th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, we should remember the lessons from the civil rights icon’s last great political crusade: the Poor People’s Campaign to end poverty.
The less than three months between national celebrations of King’s birthday and more sober reflections on his martyrdom reveal the often dizzying contradictions of a still-contested legacy. In one breath, politicians of all ideological and racial hues extol the virtues of racial equality or, more comfortingly, color-blindness, even as many ignore the civil rights leader’s eloquent criticisms of racism, war and poverty.
The last two are especially important, since they reflect the evolution of King’s movement in his last years. Perhaps more than any other social-movement leader in American history, King proved capable of looking at different strands of political and social injustice and tying them together to form a coherent narrative capable of leveraging mass disaffection into concrete policy changes.
Nowhere did he do this more masterfully than in connecting the struggle for racial justice with an economic crusade to end poverty. King’s movement to end poverty addressed the needs of a diverse cross-section of Americans — including poor whites from Appalachia, Native Americans and Mexican Americans from the Southwest — and he judged the rampant poverty in the world’s richest nation to be more than a mere contradiction of American democracy and capitalism.
King’s plans to bring hundreds of poor Americans to Washington to “camp in” on the national Mall triggered shock and condemnation from critics who feared that violence might erupt.
In King’s expansive political imagination, the outcome of struggles for racial justice was most visible on America’s economic battlefields, where poverty’s scars could be witnessed in the faces of malnourished children, the desperation of unemployed men and women, and communities ravaged by a loss of hope.
King experienced his last year on Earth at an accelerated pace. Operating on little sleep, battling depression, and roundly condemned by former allies and friends for opposing the Vietnam War, King found himself unflatteringly mentioned as a dissident and rabble-rouser. Yet he pressed on, unwavering in his belief that the “triple threats to humanity” of poverty, racism and militarism needed to be challenged at all costs.
His last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” posed a question that confounded the nation upon its 1967 publication as much as it does now. But in launching a national movement to end poverty, King decisively answered his own question. Battling exhaustion and debates within his inner circle that questioned the effectiveness of nonviolence amid urban rebellions and national unrest, King soldiered on.
He discovered hidden talents, including the ability to listen to grass-roots activists previously on the movement’s margins, including black welfare activists, teenage gang leaders and political revolutionaries of all stripes. Though he remained committed to nonviolence, King’s speeches grew more combative. He still hinted at the redemptive possibilities of the “beloved community” but leaned heavily on rhetorical exasperation at the federal government’s-and the larger nation’s-inability to combat racial and economic crises with corresponding political and social action.
But rather than appear to be a national scold, he emerged as an unrepentant Old Testament prophet, mentioning his own impending death as merely a footnote to an imperiled humanity’s more tragic global decline.
Haven been feted by European kings, American presidents and African heads of state, King chose to cast his lot with sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., on strike to gain a living wage. On April 3, 1968, in Memphis, King delivered his last speech, where he defiantly vowed not to let “any illegal injunction” prevent a planned demonstration in the city the next day.
“The greatness of America,” King shouted to the congregation, “is the right to protest for right!”
These words resound clearly in our own time, a period marked by rising economic inequality, racial strife and perpetual war around the world. Just as in King’s time, poverty in America is intimately linked to institutional racism and international wars that divert resources away from nation building at home.
Forty-six years after King’s death, the best way to honor his life and political legacy is to focus on the issues of poverty, race and war that marked his final political campaign. King’s willingness to challenge the status quo of economic injustice, racial segregation and inequality, and unwise warfare made him the object of scorn and derision. Yet his steadfast courage and risk taking offer an enduring lesson of political integrity, one that all activists should heed.
Peniel E. Joseph, a Tufts University history professor, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard, and author of “Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama” and the newly released “Stokely: A Life. “ He is a contributing editor at The Root, an online source of commentary from a variety of black perspectives.