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Column

Martin Luther King and economic justice

Where Martin Luther King died on April 4, 1968, tells us what he wanted to devote the rest of his life to had he lived.

Memphis, the city where he was tragically killed, is also the place that gave him hope and inspiration for the next phase of the movement for justice and equality.

In the spring of 1968, King went to Memphis three times to march with and support 1,300 sanitation workers engaged in a prolonged strike for better wages and working conditions. The unity, passion and commitment among the Memphis workers and their supporters greatly encouraged King.

Addressing the strikers on March 18, 1968, he said, “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.” King and Ralph Abernathy had recently launched the Poor People’s Campaign. Their vision was to join poor people and the working poor in an interracial movement for economic justice.

While we recognize King as the greatest civil rights leader of the 20th century, he had from early on been concerned about economic injustice as well as racial injustice.

King believed that lifting people of all races out of poverty and into decent paying jobs was central to creating a just society. For years, he pursued an alliance between the civil rights movement and the union movement, often with Walter Reuther, the leader of the United Auto Workers.

Addressing the AFL-CIO national convention in 1961, King said, “I look forward to the day when all who work for a living will be one,” regardless of their race, ethnicity, or “any other distinctions.” The full title of the 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event initiated by A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Sleeping Car Porters Union.

King frequently talked about the three major evils in the world: war, racial injustice and economic injustice. He believed society had to address all three to advance humanity.

In the last two years of his life, King became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and focused on combating economic injustice. He even advocated for a universal basic income (interestingly, an idea revived in the 2016 presidential race by a Libertarian and in 2020 by a Democratic candidate).

More than a half century after King’s death, his vision for economic justice in our society has not come close to realization. In 2019, despite low unemployment, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the gap between the richest and poorest Americans is the greatest it’s been in 50 years.

The working poor today are women and men of all races and ages, many of whom hold down two jobs. It could be a young black person in Chicago or a middle-aged white person downstate who, at day’s end, cannot put enough food on the table to feed a family. Our “thriving” economy has not paid off for them.

On the night before King was killed, he exhorted the crowd overflowing a large Memphis church: “Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together or we go down together.”

In today’s economically, racially and politically divided America, we could honor King’s vision by taking his words to heart.

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