Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He was in the city to lend support to the city’s sanitation workers, a mostly African-American workforce paid subpar wages and subjected to humiliating and dangerous working conditions. It was King’s second visit to the city to support the workers within a few weeks. The night before his assassination King gave one of his most memorable speeches ever. Evoking biblical imagery as he often did, King spoke of having seen the promise of social justice and freedom for all finally arrive. “I may not get there with you,” he shouted in a slightly wavering voice. “But I have seen the promised land.”
Less than twenty-four hours later King was dead and the nation’s cities were rising up in anger, unleashing the fateful lightning of a terrible swift sword.
The reasons for Dr. King’s support of the Memphis strike are many, but one that underlies them all was the campaign King and hundreds of others had been working on since the previous year. This campaign was to be known as the Poor People’s Campaign. The intention of the campaign was to implement serious economic reforms in the United States that would do much towards alleviating the gross economic inequality so specific to US capitalism. The mechanics of the campaign were simple in terms of the public presentation. Hundreds of poor people—Black, Brown, Native American and white—would march from different cities to Washington, DC. Once in DC, these folks would live in a tent city on the Mall, protesting and lobbying for a guaranteed income, housing, education and jobs. Ideally, their efforts would result in an economic bill of rights for all US residents.
In his work for civil rights King had come to realize, like so many others, that ending racial apartheid in the US was not enough to provide all Americans equal opportunity. Indeed, the historical legacy of slavery combined with the domination of the US government by corporate interests and Wall Street guaranteed a level of economic inequality no civil rights laws could erase. As King was quick to realize, although this inequality affected non-white Americans in greater proportions than white-skinned people. In numbers alone there were more poor white people. In other words, the exploitation essential to capitalism, while not without racist underpinnings, did not necessarily discriminate according to skin tone, either. This was why the entire economic system requires restructuring.
Beginning that restructuring was the basis for the Poor People’s Campaign.
In a new book titled King and the Other America: The Poor People’s Campaign and the Quest for Economic Equality, author Sylvie Laurent delves into the politics of the campaign while simultaneously mapping its path from idea to the tent city’s denouement in clouds of tear gas and numerous arrests. The story she tells is one that evokes the passions of the period known as the Sixties while carefully explaining the personalities and politics of the movement for economic and social justice at the time. Given the centrality of King to the Poor People’s Campaign, it is only natural that Laurent’s text makes King the centerpiece of her narrative. The reader is provided with an ongoing discussion of his political thought and development, especially as it relates to his problems with capitalism and his preference for some form of democratic socialism.
King and the Other America portrays Dr. King’s vision for the campaign as one where the poor people of the United States would serve as a revolutionary vanguard. By marching into the national capital and occupying a central piece of land in that city, this vanguard would inspire others across the nation to engage in their own actions and campaigns and force the government to redistribute the wealth of Wall Street so that all residents could have a decent life. In her discussion of the ideals of the campaign, Laurent examines the growing reactionary backlash to the social movements of the 1960s in the traditionally conservative Congress and the hesitation among King’s allies to support his ever harsher and more honest critique of capitalism. Others in the civil rights movement opposed his reaching out to Latinos, Native Americans, whites and others, fearing the unique oppression of US blacks would be overlooked by a racist nation eager to erase that legacy.
History has not treated the Poor People’s Campaign well. Most mentions of it seem to consider it at best an afterthought, an ill-informed socialist inspired miscalculation or worse. Laurent redeems the campaign in terms of its importance and its place in the progression of Martin Luther King’s place in the struggle for social justice in the United States. She notes that it inspired Black Panther Fred Hampton’s work to build Chicago’s Rainbow Coalition; a coalition King confidante Jesse Jackson turned into a national phenomenon during his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. So many of the Poor People’s Campaign demands, made over fifty years ago, remain on the table: Medicare for all, job training and education, affordable child care. Likewise, the response of those opposed to these demands is remarkably similar to that from right-wing media and racist politicians back then. Louisiana Senator Russell Long’s response to the campaign’s demands for economic equality–”If they think they are going to push us into bankrupting this country to pay worthless people to be more worthless they are making a mistake.”–echoes across FoxNews several times a week.
If anything, economic inequality in the United States and the world is greater than it was in 1968 when the Poor People’s Campaign set up its tent city in Washington, DC. The forces of reaction are more certain of their power and at least as mean as they were in making sure they keep that power. Yet, the need for revolutionary change seems further away than it was fifty years ago. The author’s introduction makes clear that King and the Other America was written with this understanding in mind. As so many have warned the rich and powerful before (and as the insurrection that followed King’s murder made clear), if calls for nonviolent change are denied, that terrible swift sword will be wielded, leaving fire and destruction in its wake.
(The title of this review is from Dr. King’s 1967 sermon titled “Where do We Go from Here?”)