The United States is often criticized for being behind much of the world, including so-called ‘third-world’ countries, on various fronts. The U.S. is regularly targeted for its education system, its biased criminal justice system, its lack of social programs, poverty, hunger, violent crime, and institutionalized racism in all aspects of society; topics Martin Luther King Jr. began to speak out against 70 years ago.
These are matters that the United States routinely targets other countries for under the guise of human rights abuses. However, in the richest country on the planet, and in a show of American exceptionalism, U.S. politicians have historically declined to address these easy-to-solve issues at home. Addressing those problems is what a good portion of the misinformed United States decries as socialism or communism. Misnomers employed since the Ku Klux Klan began using them in the early-to-mid-1900s to stop progress on civil rights causes.
It’s worth noting that some of the language currently in use has been around for many decades or even centuries. However, moving forward, the focus of this article will be on how to best implement the ideas MLK sought to achieve specifically. Since the majority of the population in the U.S. seems to feel an association with Dr. King more so than say, Malcolm X, we’re going to focus on the totality of MLK’s speeches and sermons along with his writings.
This dubious connection to Dr. King is largely based on selected quotes shown using various media formats. The problem with the quotes we routinely see is they remove all context, and therefore, the true essence of his message. MLK’s ideologies are the reason nearly all of white America despised him. He was polarizing to them.
Dr. King sought Black liberation. That scared the hell out of white America.
King’s Coalition Building
If we focus on addressing the more critical of these issues, implementing social programs is the only way to achieve success in leading the country to a more prosperous economic future. At this moment in time, we are inundated with myriad political ideologies and beliefs. Aside from extremist and hate-based politics, acknowledging the diversity in political thought is of vast importance to this discussion. It intends to challenge the white-washed history of MLK and ideas about the transfer of wealth while exposing the economic power of people.
Dr. King was in a constant state of growth. At one point or another, he had spoken up for every community in America. Even poor white people. In fact, many would argue, with great success, that King was killed due to fears of coalition-building among various groups. The idea that poor white people would be side by side with Black people and other people of color struck fear in the hearts of politicians and corporate powers all over the country.
Had he succeeded, we know the result would have been society-changing. But it’s impossible to know just how large that impact would have been. Building a rainbow coalition of voters would have forced change through the people’s collective power. That was the reality of the time. Many White people were allying themselves with Dr. King and bringing poor white people with them. Those clinging to the white power structure fought back.
The movement was just beginning to pick up steam and the foundation of the U.S. began to shudder, the pillars of Congress were trembling almost as if they were about to buckle. Then, it happened. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — with help from the FBI.
Politics Too Often Get in the Way of Progress
Whether you believe it or not, politics impacts the daily lives of residents. Much of a U.S. citizen’s complacency to vote or be involved in the political activities of society stems from ideas that argue what happens in politics doesn’t have any impact on their day-to-day lives. Many simply accept a broken society as it is because the most harmful parts of it don’t affect them.
Those that are impacted by the worst of the United States are disproportionately Black, Latino, Indigenous, or other people of color that lack true voting power on local and state levels. Due to gerrymandered voting districts and various voting restrictions tailored to individual regions of the country, non-white populations are routinely governed by the minority population. Nationwide, rural white voters are overrepresented in statehouses and in the U.S. Congress.
Too often, those representing a minority of the country are able to dictate how the entirety of the nation is required to live. Voter suppression, racial justice, social equity, and law enforcement accountability are just a few of the issues we can’t push forward because state and federal legislative branches allow for the representative minority to stifle progress. The U.S. has been in a civil liberties gridlock since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of suppression.
When conservatives cite MLK, they’re doing so under the guise of declaring Dr. King would be on their side. In reality, if they were true supporters of King’s ideology, the United States would have passed universal healthcare, universal basic income, and the wealth gap would be much smaller as corporations would have been reigned in. Instead, they have done none of those things by employing the use of racist tools like the filibuster and the Senate parliamentarian.
The United States sits at the mercy of the representative minority.
To Honor Dr. King
Arguably, one of the most overlooked aspects of Dr. King’s legacy is his advocacy for social programs. In his final act as an anti-poverty leader, King had been working hard at organizing a march on Washington called the “Poor People’s Campaign” — which lives on today. The goal was to deploy a tent city on the National Mall to, as Mark Engler described for the Nation, “dramatize the reality of joblessness and deprivation by bringing those excluded from the economy to the doorstep of the nation’s leaders.” Dr. King was killed before he could see it through.
In Dr. King’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, published in 1967, he made the case for a guaranteed middle-class income. Many might think that the idea of a universal basic income is a relatively modern one. But the concept became somewhat mainstream in the late 1960s. He wanted to make sure that every household had a concrete income to spend each year.
In his book, Dr, King asserted that the government’s efforts to tackle poverty incrementally — providing improved housing, better education, and more family support — were “piecemeal and pygmy.” He argued, “…the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.” Dr. King believed the government was responsible for providing work and income for those left behind.
Dr. King emphasized that he was neither a socialist nor a Marxist. Instead, he advocated for a united social movement within both the Republican and Democratic parties. King also cited economist Henry George’s 1879 book, “Progress and Poverty” in support of George’s ideas. In concluding that, rather than having a welfare state or a class struggle, the U.S. government should act directly to benefit individuals using a guaranteed income.
In quoting George’s text stating, “the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature … is not the work of slaves, driven to their task either by the lash of a master or by animal necessities,” he became “convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
In order to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one must address his legacy appropriately and fully.
Dr. King’s Own Words
What many forget about Dr. King are his profound ideas. In that sense, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from his book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
“In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: There are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.
“Up to recently, we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils: lack of education restricting job opportunities; poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative; fragile family relationships which distorted personality development. The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination, these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.
“While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development. Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy. Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions. Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies. At no time has a total, coordinated, and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.
“In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.
“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.
“Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.
“We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.”