In the spring of 1967, Martin Luther King had more than 99 problems.
White supremacists wanted him dead. Federal agents wanted him defamed. Younger activists wanted him dethroned. But of all the challenges Martin faced, the biggest was selling the country on the steep cost of the Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, his bold new plan to address the country’s deep-rooted racial and economic inequities.
“I think the biggest problem now is that we got our gains over the last 12 years at bargain-rates so to speak,” he drawled in his Southern baritone, talking to NBC News’s Sander Vanocur. Martin stood in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, mustering all the respectability he could for national television. His clean-shaven face gleamed. His shirt sat a crisp white. A soft gold light shone on his head through a crown-pattern stained-glass window as he parsed the opposition facing the bill.
“It didn’t cost the nation anything to get the right to vote established,” King told Vanocur. “Now we are confronting issues that cannot be solved without costing the nation billions of dollars. Now I think this is where we are getting our greatest resistance. They may put it on many other things. But we can’t get rid of slums and poverty without it costing the nation something.”
For King, ever the prophet, the cost would soon be clear. Over the next year, he crisscrossed the country advocating for a federal jobs guarantee, universal basic income, and universal health insurance. The plan called for a multiracial direct-action protest bringing 2,000 poor demonstrators to Washington, DC, to construct a shantytown “Resurrection City” on the National Mall and lobby Congress to adopt massive economic reforms. The platform crystallized into his Poor People’s Campaign. But he’d be dead before he could ever see it.
An assassin killed King that April. Without his leadership, the Poor People’s campaign collapsed. In May, when the movement arrived in Washington, organizers feuded with each other and the press. And by that July, King’s heir, Ralph Abernathy, declared defeat, acknowledging the “failure” of Congress “to move on the issue of poverty.”
It rained all summer that year. The downpours delayed several of the demonstrations and deluged the shanty town. Soil turned to sludge. The thick slop covered everything. Wrapping their shoes in plastic, and their bodies in blankets, protesters drudged on. But after 40 days drenched in rain and 40 nights drenched in defeat, the residents of Resurrection City left Washington, their hopes for a new economy lost.
On a brisk November day in Washington, DC, 55 years after Martin Luther King spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and two miles away from where his Poor People’s campaign sank in the National Mall, Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entered the Speaker of the House’s office to join a sit-in.
In the hallway, activists held signs and placards printed with “what is your plan?” Inside, protesters wore shirts reading “we have a right to good jobs and a livable future.”
Standing in the room’s center, Ocasio-Cortez looked the activists in the eye.
“I just want to let you know how proud I am of each and every single one of you, for putting yourselves, your bodies, and everything on the line to save our planet, our generation, and our future,” she told them.
Ocasio-Cortez and the protesters occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office to advocate for the Green New Deal: a piece of legislation that calls for guaranteed federal employment in a green economy, universal access to health care, universal basic income, and racial equity.
It’s a striking update to the economic strategies endorsed by Martin Luther King and his allies.
Where the Green New Deal calls for “upgrading water infrastructure to ensure universal access to clean water,” King’s policies aimed to address “critical shortages of water and power” in “highly populated areas.” Where the Green New Deal includes “universal health care,” King’s policies demanded a “nationwide, universal system of health insurance.” Where the Green New Deal aims to “mitigate deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth,” King’s policies aimed to end “the problems of race and poverty.”
In so many ways, these new proposals are kin to the economics of the civil-rights era. Both generations’ legislation addresses societal problems at the seismic scale on which they exist, and neither of them shrink from the price of justice. Just as King told NBC his plans would cost “billions,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leveled with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes this month about raising the marginal tax rate. Cooper prodded her with concerns from critics calling the Green New Deal “unrealistic.”
“What makes it unrealistic?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
“How to pay for it,” Cooper said.
“We pay more per capita in health care and education for lower outcomes than many other nations,” she said. “And so for me, what’s unrealistic is—is what we’re living in right now.”
The urgency in Ocasio-Cortez’s voice echoes the warnings from civil-rights leaders 50 years ago. Back then, organizers urged the case for “fair and full employment” on the looming crisis between workers and automation. In 1964, civil-rights leaders warned of a “jobs crisis,” fearing that “just as Reconstruction had been undone in the industrial revolution, so was the civil rights movement in danger of being undone in the automation revolution.”
The acting NAACP labor director Herbert Hill admonished that the country’s inaction would create “a permanent black underclass,” a group of “permanent unemployables,” and the Urban League’s Whitney Young posed a similar ultimatum, explaining that Americans had “choices to make.” He said “either we can make these people constructive citizens, productive and healthy, or they are going to be destructive dependents,” and “we [shall] pay the cost of our shortsightedness.”
Yet, despite the activist’s proposals, pickets, and pleas, the nation rejected the jobs agenda, and the organizers’ grim predictions came true. The country’s racialized unemployment and poverty festered like a sore, running into the 21st century.
During the 1970s and ’80s, sociologists like William Julius Wilson dubbed the generation of “permanent unemployables” “the urban underclass.” In the ’90s and ’00s, black children living in poor, deindustrialized cities inherited their parents’ disadvantages, with the average wealth of white families soaring over $400,000 higher than the average wealth of black families by 1998. And today, after a Great Recession that wiped out half of black wealth and a recovery that left black families behind, the economic gaps that Martin Luther King rallied against during the civil-rights era persist.
When analyzing US income distribution from 1971 to 2010, New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey found “virtually no progress toward racial equality.” And likewise, Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond found equally dismal longitudinal racial gaps in mass incarceration, unemployment, evictions, and extreme poverty.
It is from the gutters of this unreformed economy that many of today’s new radical voices hail. Ocasio-Cortez was born in the burning Bronx. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) lived through the bankruptcy and bottoming out of postindustrial Detroit. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) split her roots between Chicago and Boston, two of the most segregated cities in America. But, while lived experience in these postindustrial hotspots has catalyzed progressivism’s new stars, decades of neoliberal policy, automation, and globalization have spread the contagion of economic blight far past the chocolate cities of the Great Migration.
Today, the instability and insecurity that once characterized urban black America exist from coast to coast, hurting big cities, suburbs, and small towns alike. And as the problems of unemployment and insecurity have diffused across the country, so too has the case for bold economic policy.
Capturing the zeitgeist, new representatives like Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Talib have brought the call for radical economic policy back to Washington. Their work has provided political cover and courage to establishment Democrats like Kirsten Gillibrand, who calls for a guaranteed-employment program, Cory Booker, whose recent proposals include baby bonds, and Kamala Harris, who supports a universal basic income like tax credit.
It is in the embrace of these racially equitable economic policies that we see King’s radical legacy resurrected. The leader didn’t dream of an feel-good multiculturalism in which people merely held hands; he wanted an integrated society where even the most marginalized constituents had housing, an income, health care, and employment.
At the end of King’s life, the country rejected this vision of racial and economic parity, burying the Poor People’s Campaign under a mound of bad faith and bad press on the National Mall. Today, the seeds of King’s policies are sprouting anew in Washington, championed by the Democratic freshman class. This time, their plan has the potential to turn the whole nation green.