Since it’s Martin Luther King Jr Day, I think it’s appropriate to look at what he said and did near the end of his life. His last project was the Poor People’s Campaign:
After all, in December 1967, just four months before he was assassinated, King announced to the press that the Poor People’s Campaign was coming to Washington, DC, that April.
The goal: to demand that President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress take action to help poor people get employment, health care, and decent housing. The tactic: marching through the US Capitol and demonstrating at federal agencies to convince Congress to pass major anti-poverty legislation. The unique approach: the participants would physically stay there, living on the National Mall in an encampment dubbed Resurrection City, until they saw results.
Most people ignore the fact that MLK was seen as divisive which is why at his funeral there were so few whites present:
Alongside a reproduction of a photo of King’s funeral that ran in “Life,” Jaar graphically lays bare the nation’s racial divisions at the time of the civil rights leader’s death. In one frame, Jaar represents all of the African Americans at the funeral march with black dots. In a second frame, he shows the white people present as red dots. There are thousands of black dots and only a few dozen red ones.
He zoomed in on the red dots in Jaar’s work and was able to identify one or two faces. “Back by Coretta, three rows back, the man with the gray hair. That’s Jerry Wurf.” Wurf was president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, whose workers King had been supporting. Garrow noted that the night the civil rights leader died, Robert Kennedy also spoke movingly about his legacy.
When King died, he was advocating for “radical economic change” and had taken a stance against the Vietnam War, Garrow said. Both of those issues alienated him from some former supporters. “People in the Democratic Party thought King had self-marginalized. His murder alters his historical status hugely. What people now remember is his post-assassination enshrinement.”
Here are some bits from two of his last speeches:
One from March 31, 1968:
Now there is another myth that still gets around: it is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.
They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two hundred and forty-four years.
In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.
Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.
But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.
We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice.
And yet somehow there are all those conservatives that believe he would be against affirmative action.
In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives.
We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.
We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.
Why do we do it this way? We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.
And yet some people think he was against confrontation.
I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.
It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.
Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home that can’t hardly live on the same block together.
Jeff Jacoby has a column today about King and somehow he gets this:
To read (or listen to) King’s final speech, knowing that he was just 39 and would be murdered the next day, is to marvel that America could have produced so extraordinary a liberator. He could and did evoke the shame of his nation’s grievous racial injustices with devastating force — yet he never broke faith with that nation, or doubted that, if its conscience were aroused, it would eventually take seriously its creed of liberty and justice for all.
Notice that he doesn’t mention the Vietnam war or King’s crusade against poverty. Also notice that he elides the fact that King was very much for tension and confrontation–he might have thought that the US would someday live up to it’s ideals, but it would be a struggle.
Jacoby takes bits from King’s last speech (April 3, 1968, the day before he was killed) such as:
Now we’ve got to go on in Memphis just like that. I call upon you to be with us when we go out Monday. Now about injunctions. We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they haven’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on. We need all of you.
but somehow he fails to mention that this was going to be a march in support of a union. He also doesn’t mention the parts where he is fighting for the poor:
And I want to commend the preachers, under the leadership of these noble men: James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years. He’s been to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggling; but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people. Reverend Ralph Jackson, Billy Kyles; I could just go right on down the list, but time will not permit. But I want to thank all of them, and I want you to thank them because so often preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry. It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
Finally, if you go back to his letter from a Birmingham jail cell, you’ll see what side he would have been on in the latest demonstrations:
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
Yup, people were deploring King for being an outside agitator–some things never change.