Remembering King and a campaign interrupted
Rev. Martin Luther King is remembered, of course, for his role in the U.S. civil rights movement and the heroic sacrifice that commitment ultimately demanded. At the time of his cowardly murder, however, King was actually beginning to see beyond the movement that had defined the last decade or so of his life toward a broader, multiracial effort on behalf of the people Michael Harrington had, just a few years earlier, memorably placed in the “Other America.” Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign lives on at least as a website and in principle, but the energy and vision King brought to the effort could not be replaced and the campaign foundered soon after his death.
Still, decades before popular campaigns like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, King was attempting to build a mass movement that could not be co-opted or claimed by charismatic politicians or scheming political parties. It was one that he hoped would involve the American people themselves in demanding full employment, decent housing, just wages and a pro-active government role in mitigating the worst excesses of poverty in the United States.
Some of the campaign’s goals were realized in the various programs established during the War on Poverty, and indded there was significant poverty alleviation in the U.S. in the years after the campaign collapsed. Poverty was cut in half under Johnson/Nixon, declining from about 22 percent of the population at the beginning of the 1960s to a low of just over 11 percent in 1973. (It has been rising steadily ever since.) The impact on poverty in the African American community was even more dramatic, declining from about 55 percent to 33 percent in the same time frame. The U.S. never officially committed itself to a policy of full employment (though Truman toyed with the notion) nor did a minimum family wage ever become established (though that was supported by Nixon). Nevertheless, in the second Clinton term good economic times drove overall unemployment down to four percent and down to record lows in the nation’s African American community.
The Great Recession has, sadly, in just a few years reversed much of that progress. African American neighborhoods across the country are again mired in high rates of unemployment (almost twice the general rate) and poverty, increasing overall to 15 percent last year, is again heading toward a crisis level among African Americans. Almost 40 percent of the nation’s African American kids are growing up poor.
Were he alive today, unfortunately, King would find himself faced with many of the same circumstances and challenges he confronted heading the Poor People’s Campaign, the same arguments are being replayed about the role of government, the same looting of the national wealth for war-making. Today in an era of identity politics and hyperpartisanism, it may even be harder to produce the multiracial unity and political comity King sought. We have come a long way since Memphis in 1968; have we just ended up back where we started from?