SLU historian: Politicians ignore Martin Luther King’s fight for poor people, workers
During the 1960s, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders spoke often about the need for economic rights for Black Americans.
Politicians across the nation often point to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington but focus on its message of equality and look past King’s call for the nation to end poverty.
According to the U.S. census, the Black poverty rate was about 30% in 1968. Today’s Black poverty rate is about 19.5%, twice the white poverty rate.
“King really didn't want to take the idea that we could be the richest country in the world and have all these impoverished people in that country as citizens,” said Christopher Tinson, chair of the African American Studies department at St Louis University.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson spoke to Tinson about why politicians ignore King’s call for economic rights.
Andrea Henderson: I know many people point to Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech during the March on Washington in 1963 as a call for equality, but King also called on the nation to address the poverty that afflicted Black people. Do you think most of the country is aware of this?
Christopher Tinson: I think that America and particularly our government leaders have a way of scrubbing the past to favor their belief system. And I think Dr. King, though unpopular at the time of his death, has been co-opted. His legacy has been co-opted. And you have people who are antithetical to his vision, using his name in speeches, using his name and speeches to local school boards and boldly lying about what King represented. I think people intentionally want to avoid the economic situation that he spoke about because there's no will to address it in a coherent way.
Henderson: Since the end of slavery, the economic position of Black Americans really hadn't improved much as intergenerational transfers of wealth largely account for the wealth gap. How much is that central to the unfulfilled promise of the civil rights movement?
Tinson: I would point to the post-World War II period as a period of possibility for Black folk to one, utilize some of the civic levers, if you will, of home ownership, service in the military, educational opportunities to kind of advance themselves and propel them towards a middle-class lifestyle. And this wasn't for everybody.
A. Philip Randolph was critical to the original March on Washington in the 1940s. He and Bayard Rustin were really before King talking about economic justice and really putting that in the government's lap as something that the government had to resolve. This wasn't Black people's fault that they were poor. They were poor because they didn't have government support.
Henderson: At the time of his death, King was in Memphis to launch the Poor People's Campaign, working with sanitation workers, striving for higher pay and better working conditions. He and a few other civil rights leaders spoke of the contrast of poverty and wealth during that time. But were they raising questions about the nation's economic system and calling for broader distribution of wealth?
Tinson: Yes, but the problem was since the 1940s that position of redistribution of wealth was seen to be a communist view. So if you have Black people, which they were supporting that view, then it kind of puts them at odds with the United States government. So, they didn't always talk about it in that way of redistribution of wealth. A redistribution of wealth with that view was criminalized and demonized. Just that statement redistribution of wealth even now, that raises a lot of red flags for people.
Henderson: Why do you think that the critics of today's activism cite King's “I Have a Dream” speech as a reminder of what they think Black Americans should be striving for, but omit his economic message?
Tinson: I think it's harder to talk about the real material circumstances of Black folks' life even though there's bits and pieces of that in the speech itself. But this idea of dreaming, it's just a brilliant American metaphor, right? I have a dream is part of the American dream.
He was a humanitarian through and through and that's why I think the dream becomes this great performance. But you can't read that absent of looking at his other pieces, his other speeches, his other writings. King really didn't want to take the idea that we could be the richest country in the world and have all these impoverished people in that country as citizens. To him, that was hard to reconcile. He's thinking out loud about that in the dream speech, but it was an important moment for the movement. But I think King was an inheritor of a long conversation about rights in general. People are comfortable with that because it's like you could be a criminal, but your grandmother's still going to pray for you and that was his prayer for America. And America knows it is a criminal and it knows that it is not trying to do right. However, please pray for me.
Henderson: Do you think that with the way that things are going today that King would be proud or he would look upon the work that’s being done as something that he could stand behind? Or would it just be disappointing to him?
Tinson: I think anybody of his consciousness and conscience will be profoundly disappointed with the attacks on voting rights, with the contracting of education, equal educational opportunities for poor folks and poor folks of color. History is not linear, so there's always these moments where you’ve got to come back and revisit struggles you thought you had already won. I think we're in that moment now where we thought we had completed the voting rights struggle. A lot of blood was shed. A lot of people went to jail and a lot of people organized to get Black folks elected at various levels of government, and yet in 2022, we are still facing a grave attack on the essential human right of a civic public. We have elected officials who are doing everything they can to make it more difficult, doing everything they can to have less people vote. And this is troubling, and I think Dr. King would not retreat from calling that out.
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