In August 1967 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what would be his last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Despite the assembled activists’ many accomplishments in their struggle for racial justice, the civil rights leader reminded them that there was still much work to be done in the struggle for economic justice. Forty million poor people lived in America, King told them, and it was their responsibility as Christians and citizens not simply to take care of the poor but to confront the economic system that allowed them to be poor. “We’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society,” the minister asserted. “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Hoping to rouse the country to action against this evil–an evil, in his eyes, that was more deeply entrenched than racism–King urged his listeners to reject their own sense of satisfaction and instead to be filled with what he called a “divine dissatisfaction.” “Let us be dissatisfied,” he said, “until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.” This was a bold agenda, one to which King devoted the last years of his life. Soon after the address, he organized the Poor People’s Campaign with plans to bring together an interracial coalition for a massive protest in the nation’s capital. Much of his remaining time he devoted to supporting union causes across the country, including the sanitation workers’ strike that would bring him to Memphis, and his murder, the following spring.
This final address to the civil rights organization King led–a call to arms titled “Where Do We Go From Here?”–should occupy a central place in his legacy. Instead, Americans have chosen to remember the civil rights leader more for the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech he delivered four years earlier, during the March on Washington. In the popular imagination, that address and its occasion have been enshrined as the high-water mark of the integrationist crusade. In truth, both were more complicated. At a fundamental level, the historic proceedings of that day in August 1963 embodied a struggle not simply for racial justice but for economic justice as well. The event’s formal title, after all, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Its demands included civil rights legislation but also fair hiring practices, an increase in the minimum wage and a federal public-works program to create new jobs. As King reminded the massive crowd gathered on the Mall, even 100 years after emancipation “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Despite the centrality of economic concerns in the march–and, indeed, in the movement that inspired it–Americans have chosen to remember only its mandate for racial integration. To be sure, the most ritualistically quoted line of the day remains King’s dream of a nation in which his children would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” While that call for a colorblind society was certainly controversial at the time, virtually all Americans lay claim to his vision today. Liberals see themselves as heirs of the civil rights movement as they remain vigilant against the many manifestations of racism. Conservatives, meanwhile, invoke those selfsame words as an argument against race-conscious efforts by public and private institutions to counteract the legacies of slavery and segregation. (Never mind the fact that such an interpretation is wholly at odds with the enthusiastic support that King and other civil rights leaders gave to affirmative action in education and employment.)