Each year on King Day, Americans remember first and foremost a Baptist preacher for his absolute and unwavering dedication to nonviolence and love in the face of bloodshed and hate.
Americans and citizens around the world remember King’s conviction that militarism, racism and “extreme materialism” stand as the greatest evils facing the modern world and the human race as a species. Throughout all of the parades and speeches we will witness through Monday, Jan. 20, what may stand out most was King’s unyielding faith that modern man shall overcome those trials by means of a coordinated alliance of grassroots activists—no matter what cause they may advocate. These beliefs can be traced directly back to the fight for Black liberation, voting rights, equitable education opportunities, fair housing and a call for warring factions among us to meet at the table of brotherhood.
King’s perspective was global as well as national. He emphasized “the oneness of mankind and the geographical oneness of the wold,” while casting full attention on the important issues of the day and how the most effective and pragmatic course of action can bring about needed change.
In his day, of course, it was about social and economic progress for African-Americans despite the fact that a significant portion of both major parties opposed not only him but the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. In an address delivered at an NAACP Emancipation Day rally in Atlanta in January 1957, he analyzed the political demographics of the era:
“Actually, the Negro has been betrayed by both the Democrat and the Republican parties. The Democrats have betrayed us by capitulating to the whims and caprices of the southern Dixicrats. The Republicans have betrayed us by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing reactionary northern Republicans. And this coalition of southern Dixiecrats and northern right-wing Republicans defeats every liberal move that goes before Congress.”
King’s vision was deeply radical in his demand for nothing less than “a revolution in values.” King was also a strategic pragmatist. The “long arc of history” might bend toward justice, as he once asserted, but his generation realized that “history” needed to be bent, day by day, and that the only ones who could alter the shape of history were courageous citizens struggling together to achieve small victory after small victory.
Part of the “struggle” then was confronting the most pressing issue of the time: the right to freely cast a ballot. King regarded voting as the sacred obligation of all citizens. He counseled movement activists—and all frustrated citizens of the time—to reject the temptations of a third-party “protest vote” because that would only set back progress.
Not voting was an anathema to King. In a radio announcement from October 1964, for instance, King implored all citizens to register and vote. “It is a part of the history of democracies that men have fought and bled and died to win the right to vote,” he said.
The “one man one vote” mantra was only one aspect of King’s activism. In his 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” King stated that “We can’t solve our problems unless there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” This bold idea—still debated today among liberals and conservatives—was rooted in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A sign captured on TV cameras that day read: “Civil Rights Plus Full Employment Equals Freedom.” King recognized fully that, in the tight labor market of the time, it was costlier for employers to discriminate against African-Americans because in a “bullish” economy, employers who indulged in their racial prejudices meant leaving profits off the table.
King was a fierce proponent of unions. He was in Memphis, Tenn. in support of striking Black sanitation workers when he was assassinated. King would likely see the connection between unions and power as long-standing, and today’s decline in union power could be one reason why politics may be so unrepresentative of the nation’s working-class people.
King was a champion of both guaranteed jobs and income. While policymakers for decades have proposed a broad range of solutions for increasing the employment rolls among African-Americans, King’s economic campaign proposed gaining more political power with the goal of having more representation which could help to ensure adequate jobs and incomes.
Economic inequality is inexorably tied to a lack of good jobs and a livable income. The March On Washington was “for jobs and freedom” in that order. Among its demands back then were a national minimum wage (still a hot-button issue today), and a federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—both Black and White—into meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.
When he was killed, King was planning to stage a multiracial Poor People’s March on Washington to bring attention to never-ending poverty that could be quelled by both government and private-sector cooperation. The “poor people’s” campaign also sought to thin the welfare rolls as King would have urged the jobless to view welfare as only a temporary aid while they diligently searched for gainful employment.
“Even if you are only a street sweeper,” King once said, “decide that you are going to be the best street sweeper there ever was.” Welfare recipients are now witnessing sharp reductions in their monthly allotment of funds, and King would encourage them to be self-sufficient and independent, taking responsibility for their own lives and not allowing the federal government to make personal decisions for them.