The Forgotten Economic Vision of Martin Luther King

In the last years of his life, King was boldly forging a radical, multi-racial movement for economic justice

How a Myth Turns a Man to Stone

Near the end of Parting the Waters, the first book in his trilogy-biography of Martin Luther King Jr, Taylor Branch coronates the living substance of King’s most historically visible moment, speaking before hundreds of thousands of people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. During the half-century following the March, of course, countless millions would view and re-view these moments, transforming them first into “oratory,” and then into the dangerous impenetrability of fame. But Branch digs back into the passions of the moment to uncover the importance of the speech. Arguing against critics who thought King’s insistence upon “the Dream” transformed contingent, historical material—namely bodies—into transcendent mythological presences, making a safe-sounding-simplicity out of dangerous and complex matters which the nation had to face, Branch’s description counters:

[T]he emotional command of his oratory gave King authority to reinterpret the core intuition of democratic justice. More than his words, the timbre of his voice projected him across the racial divide and planted him as a new founding father.

Yet even with this astute observation, there is no avoiding the fact that these moments of coronation of King have turned him into exactly the kind of untouchable, mythological-historical power that he and his fellow activists sought to disrupt and challenge.

In this sense, planting Martin Luther King, Jr. in a row with the “founding fathers” is exactly the trouble. Just as the process of historical coronation has long done for revolutionary elements in the legacy of the so-called “fathers” themselves, such gestures turn the passion of living flesh into gray-veined marble or granite, mediums cold to the touch, and—except in the hands of the best artists—incapable of touching us back. As Brandon Terry recently argued so skillfully, that process of would-be honorific myth-making robs us all of a living relationship to leaders such as King by presenting him as “an icon to quote, not a thinker and public philosopher to engage.”

King’s position in history signals part of the danger afflicting us all: Something, possibly rooted in our insistence upon simplicity, polices American history and transforms things we come to understand—even each other and ourselves—into untouchable objects. Rare exceptions who can’t be kept silent or neutralized in coronation, are attacked, undermined, and destroyed. Then, after they’re destroyed, the process of neutralization ensues, and by no means always by their opponents. One key to revivifying the living passion and power of King’s late vision is found in his increasingly explicit insistence upon economics and the tangles of inter-generational and cross-cultural complexity and potential that came with that insistence. No less than Marx, by the last year of his life King had come to understand that economics offered key indices of social relations, and vice versa. King’s sense of both was changing rapidly in the year leading up to his assassination fifty years ago.

The Multi-Racial Economics of King’s Late Vision and Living Legacy

In 1980, twenty-two years after King’s murder in Memphis, James Baldwin found himself staring at the granite surface of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument in Atlanta. He was making the film, I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Viewers of the film watch Baldwin pace in front of King’s granite tomb etched with the words, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last.” Accompanying this footage, we listen to Baldwin tell his brother David about his return to King’s home. Baldwin is anguished by what he found there. “I was wondering what would Martin have thought of his Atlanta now,” he told David. Recounting the visible symbols of historical invisibility, Baldwin went on:

My dear, all over the South now there are Martin Luther King, Jr. drives, freeways and expressways and there is the monument in Atlanta, which is—it’s hard for me to say this but I’ll say it—is absolutely as irrelevant as the Lincoln Memorial. It is one of the ways that the Western world has learned, or thinks it’s learned, to outwit history, to outwit time, to make a life and a death irrelevant, to make that passion irrelevant, to make it unusable, for you and for our children.”

Over footage of Baldwin staring at the message etched in stone and thereby robbed of its flesh-and-blood relevance, he concludes, “there’s nothing you can do with that monument… and we’re confronting that.”

But are we? How? How can we? Well, the radical economic and complexly social nature of King’s late vision presents a challenging reality no one has yet dared to etch into granite. King’s fast-radicalizing economic vision and its accompanying, insurgent and cross-racial message still bear the fugitive—if not dissident—and unsanctioned ephemerality of graffiti. As Baldwin understood very well, the living—as opposed to the granite—King is still anathema. In the place of the impenetrable clichés of coronation that litter our image of King’s vision, let’s focus for a moment on a few of the things he had in the works in the year leading up to his murder in Memphis.

First, King’s late vision connected his famous rhetoric of shimmering dreams and the filmy contents of universal human character to the immediate need for a radical restructuring of material interests and living conditions across the U.S. In May of 1967, at the Penn Center in Frogmore, South Carolina, King addressed the staff retreat of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which had been formed in January 1957 in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The economic dimensions of his message were foundational and clearly stated: “We can’t solve our problems unless there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” In a riff he’d repeat throughout the final year of his life, he continued: “Our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.” But, King also knew such economic visions carried along complex and volatile cultural histories and contemporary energies that were, even within the movement, often enough in conflict with each other as well as with the national, racial status quo.

The vital brilliance of King’s late vision is grounded in how he sifted together economics with cultural, spiritual, philosophical, and psychological vocabularies, ones too often separated from each other and absent from conversations about material conditions by economists and sociologists.

King understood that these conversations must take place between generations and in coalitions that link communities and span ideologies. Building on his dissent from the American War in Vietnam that he publicly disclosed at Riverside Church in Manhattan in April 1967, King’s late vision makes gestures of unmistakable fellowship and cooperation with the younger, “Black Power” generation led by Stokley Carmichael and others. Most of the leaders in King’s generation and class recoiled from Carmichael’s urgency and from his demand for power, Black power. But King attempted to reconcile the assembled members of the SCLC in South Carolina to the basic logic of the demand for power.

We must not worry about using the word Power, because this is what is wrong in so many instances, is that we are devoid of power. Now power is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. Power is the ability to affect change. The problem has been that all too many people have seen power and love as polar opposites. Consequently, on the one hand, they have thought of loveless power. And on the other hand they have thought of powerless love. They didn’t understand that the two fulfilled each other. And what we must understand in the non-violent movement is that power without love is reckless. And love without power is sentimental. In other words, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.

King would weave riffs and phrases connecting economics and cultural power throughout his speeches from 1967 and 1968.

By 1968, King was also absolutely convinced that the movement for radical economic change must involve a broadly cross-racial and inter-regional coalition of communities. Many know that King’s goal at the time of his death was the Poor People’s Campaign. On March 16 in Los Angeles, less than three weeks before his assassination, along with Marlon Brando and Baldwin, King described the movement he was planning. For historical context, consider that on that same day, a Saturday, Robert Kennedy had been in the Caucus Room of the Senate Office Building in Washington D.C. declaring his candidacy for President. The day before had brought news that Stokely Carmichael and famed South African singer, Miriam Makeba, were engaged to be married. Meanwhile, on March 14th, across the Pacific, American infantry conducted raids on villages in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam, enacting what would slowly emerge as the horrors of the My Lai massacre. In Los Angeles that Saturday, after introductions by Baldwin and Brando, King explained:

It’s time now for something positive to take place. This is why we’re going to have a Campaign in Washington, this is why we’re going with poor people. I don’t know what we’ll be able to do in Washington, frankly. I know we have to do something. I know we have to take the inchoate rage of the ghetto and transform it into something constructive and creative… that is what we’re trying to do… so that for at least sixty days, nobody in this country can overlook the fact that there are poor people around. And we solicit your support as we go to Washington, not to beg, but to demand jobs or income now.

Far less well known than King’s increasingly vocal opposition to the American War in Vietnam and his emerging concentration on American poverty was his determination to create a broadly cross-racial and inter-cultural coalition. In fact, on Thursday, March 14, just two days before his remarks in Los Angeles, and against the advice of longtime colleagues in the movement such as Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson, and with James Lawson beckoning him to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers, King had organized a summit meeting with seventy-eight minority leaders. None of these leaders were black.

These delegates met with King in Atlanta at Paschal’s Motor Lodge and Restaurant, a black-owned business and cultural institution located on West Hunter Street—later re-named Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive—at the north edge of the Clark Atlanta University campus. In At Cannan’s Edge, Taylor Branch notes that delegates represented a wide and diverse array of American communities; they included Wallace Mad Bear Anderson of the Iroquois confederation, a member of César Chávez’s striking farmworkers in California, Tillie Walker and Rose Crow Flies High from the native peoples of the Dakotas, militant Chicano leaders such as Reies López Tijerina—hailed by some as “the Chicano Malcolm X”—and Corky Gonzales, longtime allies such as Myles Horton from the Highlander Center in Tennessee as well as more recent allies among poor whites like Peggy Terry who was then leading an integrated group called Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) based in the Uptown district of Chicago’s North Side.

King’s advisers rightly pointed out the unwieldy complexity of such a coalition which included untold conflicts between at times clashing interests, few of which King understood at all. It was just about all he could do to figure out the basic difference between Mexicans, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans. That King was pointing himself into such a complex array of interests in the name of his effort to make poverty visible testifies to his rapidly expanding vision. Branch recounts that when advisers “had checked repeatedly to make sure King wanted the hardscrabble white groups…the answer was always simple: ‘Are they poor?’”

Whether King would—or should—become a new founding father or not, Taylor Branch astutely remarked how the emotional command King assumed of his vision kept him together in an era of violent fragmentation. It kept him—at least in part—at peace in an age of mounting anger and despair. King’s late vision deployed a subtle mastery of radical dialectics, a way of integrating contradictions, of guiding and steering internal strife and tension. He refused to bow to narrow, racially based visions even among trusted advisers such as Hosea Williams who complained that his cross-racial coalition amounted to “taking our money and giving it to the Indians.” And, too, King was able to project and even embody order where others saw chaos. In his speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, he noted the need for complexity and nuance even if it made people susceptible to “being mesmerized by uncertainty.” Straying from the appearance of simplicity and stable clarity was risky. Such risks were necessary, they were borne by real leaders who must offer people alternatives to simplicity, racial solipsism, and silence. In a way, and in that way, it was economics at its pragmatic best, battling the forces that make our historical sight blind to what it’s most important for us to see, that can re-animate what we know and transform it from impenetrable stone back into living flesh we can touch, energy we can use. We can’t afford the obstructions of stone and the robbery of coronations. Because, as real leaders of the era such as King, Baldwin, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Doris Castle, Jerome Smith and many, many others all knew very well, in the end the living flesh and transformative energy always lead us to each other.

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