Martin Luther King Jr. was working hard to get people to Washington, DC. But when he told an audience, “We are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect…. We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago,” the year was not 1963, and his issue was not segregation. Instead, it was 1968, five years after his “I Have a Dream” speech, and now the issue was joblessness and economic deprivation. King was publicizing a new mass mobilization led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a drive known as the Poor People’s Campaign.
In King’s vision of the campaign, thousands of Americans who had been abandoned by the economy would create a tent city on the National Mall, demand action from Congress, and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience until their voices were heard. King argued in one of his last sermons, “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
The solution, he believed, was to “confront the power structure massively.”
Four decades later, as our country struggles with disappearing jobs and growing desperation, much of the critique of the U.S. economy offered in the Poor People’s Campaign is newly resonant. As the country celebrates Dr. King’s life and legacy, it is an opportune time to ask: How did the reverend approach issues like poverty, unemployment, and economic hardship? And–given that he offered his criticisms amid one of the greatest periods of economic expansion in our country’s history–how might he respond to today’s crises of foreclosure and recession?
Jobs and Freedom
Schooled at Crozer Theological Seminary in the teachings of the Protestant Social Gospel movement, King’s theological vision included an economic critique. In a November 1956 sermon, King presented an imaginary letter from the apostle Paul to American Christians, which stated, “Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes… God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”
Unfortunately, since then, inequality has only grown. The Economic Policy Institute reports that, in 1962, a family unit in the top one percent of U.S. households had approximately 125 times the wealth of an average household. By 2004, it had risen to 190 times.
Dr. King also linked racial and economic injustice. In 1964, before the Voting Rights Act had passed, he observed in his Nobel Prize speech, “Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed–not only its symptoms but its basic causes.”
Historian Maurice Isserman notes that many Americans who listen annually to excerpts of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech are not aware that “the occasion for that speech was officially known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom ]emphasis added]… [T]he march called for a ‘massive Federal Public Works program to provide jobs for all the unemployed,’ and spoke of the ‘twin evils of discrimination and economic deprivation.'”
King’s focus on economic justice became even sharper in the last years of his life. A noteworthy part of his critique of the Vietnam War was the idea that aggressive foreign interventionism exacted not only a moral cost but also an economic one: spending on the war was undermining President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. In his famous April 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City, King made a damning indictment of a budgetary imbalance that continues to this day: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” he said, “is approaching spiritual death.”