Imagine If America Had Adopted Martin Luther King’s Economic Dream

A discussion on King’s vision of economic justice, and how so little has changed for America’s most oppressed – Interview with James Cone and Taylor Branch published on AlterNet, by Bill Moyers, April 6, 2013 (first here the transcript, the video is at the end of this article).

… Before we talk, let’s listen to these words from Martin Luther King, Jr., spoken at Stanford University just a year before his assassination. It’s as if he were saying them today.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. And in a sense this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, and culture and education for their minds, and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. […] But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.  

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to you both.

BILL MOYERS: As he was trying to converge economics, race, social and political equality, what was he struggling for at that time when he, alone among his colleagues, wanted to take on the tough structure of prejudice in economics in the North?

  • JAMES CONE: I think he was thinking about class issues. He talked about class issues to his staff. He didn’t do it primarily in speeches because of the kind of anticommunism spirit that was so deep in America at that time.
  • But on many occasions, he talked about the economic and about America having 40 million people who are in poverty in the richest country in the world. He was talking about restructuring everything. And if you talk about restructuring, you’re talking about class too.
  • TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes. You have to understand that some of this class tension was also within the black community. Some of King’s most stinging speeches were to the members of his own, like Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, saying, “You spend more money on liquor at your annual convention than you contribute to the NAACP.”
  • “This is — we’re more concerned about, I know ministers who are more concerned about the wheel base on their Cadillac than they are the spiritual base of their commitment to this world.” So, King drew an awful lot of sustenance and biting challenge from the basic notion of — I think that his favorite parable was the parable of Lazarus and Dives in Luke about–

BILL MOYERS: Which was?

  • TAYLOR BRANCH: It was about the rich man who passed Lazarus begging at his door and didn’t notice him and went to hell and saw Lazarus up in heaven.
  • And King interpreted this thing as saying the rich man did not go to hell because he was rich. He went there because he didn’t notice the humanity of the man he was passing at his gate. And it was about humanity.
  • Remember how the sanitation strike started, it started because two members of the sanitation force were crushed in the back of a garbage truck that was a cylinder, one of those compacting cylinders, in a torrential rainstorm and they were not allowed by the city to seek shelter in storms.
  • Because the white residents didn’t like it if black garbage men stopped. All the garbage workers were black. And, so, they weren’t allowed — the only place they could get shelter in — they wouldn’t all fit in the cabin. So, the ones that could fit in the cabin and two of them had to climb in the back with the garbage and a broom fell on the lever and it compacted them with the garbage. And that is the origin of the slogan, “I am a man. I am a man, not a piece of garbage.” And that connects to King’s philosophy.

BILL MOYERS: And the sanitation workers carried those signs, remember? “I am a man.”

  • TAYLOR BRANCH: “I am a man.” And to them, that was about Echol Cole and Robert Walker, their two friends who had been literally crushed with the garbage and nobody noticed. And King is saying, “You’re going to go to hell as a nation if you don’t notice the humanity of Echol Cole and Robert Walker.
  • JAMES CONE: And that’s why justice is so central for King and why poverty became the focus of his ministry after that civil rights and voting rights. Because the civil rights and voting rights is not going to get rid of poverty. And, so, King saw that as central.

BILL MOYERS: Let’s listen again to Dr. King, from the speech he made to those striking sanitation workers in Memphis just weeks before he was shot to death. What he said about poverty still rings true.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen. And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.

BILL MOYERS: Could anything be more current right now? … //

… BILL MOYERS: He was growing more impatient in the last few months and more radical. Let’s listen to what he told those workers we were talking about in Memphis.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it. And you know what? You may have to escalate the struggle a bit. If they keep refusing and they will not recognize the union, and will not decree further check-off for the collection of dues, I’ll tell you what you ought to do, and you’re together here enough to do it. In a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.

BILL MOYERS: That was a genuine call to the barricades.

  • JAMES CONE: Yes, it was. And but you can’t do that without that inner freedom that he’s talking about, which is the freedom that empowers you to stop the work. It is the freedom inside that makes you do that. And for King, everybody has to claim that freedom. It’s not a gift. Freedom is something that you have to demand from others, but you cannot demand it from others unless you have it internally yourself. And that’s a kind of inner freedom.

BILL MOYERS: In what sense was he free?

  • JAMES CONE: Well, King was free because death did not stop him. That is, the fear of death did not keep him from doing his actions for freedom. See, if the fear can stop you, then you are not free. So, freedom from fear was crucial. And throughout the South, having grown up there, I know what that fear is like.
  • And what is the most amazing thing for me is how King could inspire ordinary black people by the masses, like in Memphis, to march when white people have intimidated them for centuries. What King taught was that inner freedom that makes you confront the oppressor, even if it means risking your life. So the freedom from fear is the necessary freedom to get to civil rights, to get the jobs, to get work against poverty, even though the odds may be against you. And for black people, the odds were against them.

BILL MOYERS: But here’s the unfortunate thing. As you write about it, after his assassination, riots broke out across Memphis. And even though he acknowledged that, quote, “Riot is the language of the unheard,” didn’t this outbreak of violence in some way begin the end of the movement?

  • TAYLOR BRANCH: This is a very, very profound and difficult topic and I would have to say that it had already begun before. Nonviolence was already not popular. It had already become passé. Some of the most hostile language toward nonviolence came from the Left, people saying that nonviolence is kind of Sunday school and outmoded now.
  • And that we want to adopt the language of violence.
  • And King’s answer to that was, “Nonviolence is a leadership doctrine. If we abandon nonviolence, it’s not that we’re stepping up to demand the right to be just violent, just like first-class white people. We’re stepping back from a leadership doctrine in the United States.” And that’s what America including especially white America, does not understand.
  • One of the few speeches, by the way, in which a white leader acknowledged that was Johnson.
  • Before he said, “We shall overcome,” he said “so it was at Appomattox, so it was at Concord, so it was at Selma last week, when fate and destiny met in the same moment.”
  • So, he was putting a nonviolent black movement not only in the heart of American patriotism, but in the vanguard heart of American patriotism.

BILL MOYERS: But do you admit that nonviolence ultimately didn’t work? That it couldn’t change America?

  • TAYLOR BRANCH: No.
  • JAMES CONE: No. It did change America.
  • TAYLOR BRANCH: It did change America.
  • JAMES CONE: It changed it radically for me. I grew up in Arkansas and I know what fear is. What the movement did, nonviolence did, was to take the terror out of the South. And for the first time, you can not only go to hotels, but you can go all over the South without much fear of harm. That is a major achievement.

BILL MOYERS: Certainly I recognize that.

  • TAYLOR BRANCH: The white South was the poorest region of the country when it was segregated. It was totally preoccupied in this terror.
  • It was not fit for professional sports, even, until nonviolence lifted it out of segregation and white Southern politicians were no longer stigmatized. So, you get Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and all these people elected president. And they’re all standing on the shoulders of a nonviolent black movement. Whether they realize it or acknowledge it or not. That’s the reason that our blinkered memory of this period is such a handicap for us today.

BILL MOYERS: Granted, but nonviolence did not bring about the economic restructuring that King hoped for. So that today he could make the same speeches about inequality, poverty, work that he made 45 years ago.

  • TAYLOR BRANCH: Poverty is probably the toughest issue. You’re talking about how much nonviolence? Maybe two or three years?
  • And for the time that it was active and that it matured into what is the movement. Movement is a word we use often, but don’t reflect on what it means.
  • It was the watch word of politics. People were moved and literally moved history. But in a very, very short time. Now, the watch word of politics is spin. You know, nothing’s going anywhere and nobody’s moving.

BILL MOYERS: Not since Martin Luther King has inequality been on the table the way it was at the Occupy briefly appeared on the scene. And I wondered watching Occupy from here if a Martin Luther King had risen to embody that movement, would they have carried us further toward the changes that King and others wanted?

  • JAMES CONE: It may would have. I’m not sure. But, you know, getting rid of poverty, redistribution of wealth is not as easy as getting the right to vote. The right to vote doesn’t cost anything. But redistribution of wealth takes across class lines. That costs a lot. And people will fight you in order to prevent that from happening. And I don’t know what it would take in order to make that happen.
  • TAYLOR BRANCH: It’s also not a simple formula. Dr. King never said we were going to give up freedom to have redistribution imposed on us. He never advocated something like that. It is a hard intellectual, spiritual challenge to figure out, “How do you preserve freedom and address poverty?” I don’t think Occupy got that far yet. It didn’t take that much responsibility.
  • It was just kind of a sign of protest and not a developed sense of responsibility the way, even the sit-ins were taking lessons from Rosa Parks.
  • JAMES CONE: Yes. That’s right. The sit-ins disrupted society. The freedom riots disrupted things. Occupy Wall Street didn’t disrupt much of anything. They just camped down there and they were not grassroots in quite the same way the Southern movement was during the time of King.

BILL MOYERS: King was identifying with labor and workers and felt that unions were an essential part of the civil rights struggle.

I have this speech from 1961, when he told delegates of AFL-CIO convention, “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for the children, and respect in the community.” He felt this radical structuring that you talk about could not come without labor. And today, 45 years later, unions are largely impotent, smallest percentage of the workforce. So, what’s happened to labor today?

  • TAYLOR BRANCH: Labor has fallen in disfavor and fallen into, in some respects, an intellectual vacuum. Because people take for granted the right that we give capital to organize in form of corporations. Every corporation is a public charter.
  • It is a creation of our people. It is a legal entity that we create. And the notion that people on the other end need some sort of vehicle in a global economy in order to make their rights effective ought to be an easy idea at least to begin a conversation with. But we’re so frightened that anything — I guess we’re beholden to corporations in the way that people in the early movement felt that they were beholden to segregation, that their place in the order was threatened.
  • If you start messing around with this thing, your whole place might go. That’s how they marshaled a lot of Southerners who were not in sympathy with segregation into not being for doing anything about it. And, so, right now, you know, I think that we’re hostage to our fears and don’t really understand how we need to think about economics.

BILL MOYERS: A year before his death, this time he was speaking in California at Stanford University, he said, “In the North, schools are more segregated today than they were in 1954, when the Supreme Court’s decision on desegregation was rendered. Economically, the Negro is worse off today than he was 15 and 20 years ago.

“And, so, the unemployment rate among whites at one time was about the same as the unemployment rate among Negroes. But today, the unemployment rate among Negroes is twice that of whites. And the average income of the Negro is today 50% less than whites.” Now, Taylor and James, he could practically say the same thing today, 45 years later.

  • TAYLOR BRANCH: Absolutely.
  • JAMES CONE: Absolutely.
  • TAYLOR BRANCH: And when he did it, though, he could also say to American white people, “You tend to think of black people as hopelessly caught up in the rear. The way you should look at this is that the things that are happening to black people, unless you make common cause, are going to happen to you, too.”
  • The poverty rates, the divorce rates in families that were decried among black people now, the white society has long since passed. The notion that higher education is primarily harder for men, which is now afflicting white society. Most of our college graduates are females. That’s been true in black society for years.
  • And it has had effects in the culture. So, Dr. King said black folks are a headlight of the problems we need to deal with. And white people too often just see them as something that needs to be left behind and out of mind.

BILL MOYERS: So, what would liberation theology say today about what Taylor just described?

BILL MOYERS: He was growing more impatient in the last few months and more radical. Let’s listen to what he told those workers we were talking about in Memphis.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it. And you know what? You may have to escalate the struggle a bit. If they keep refusing and they will not recognize the union, and will not decree further check-off for the collection of dues, I’ll tell you what you ought to do, and you’re together here enough to do it. In a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.

BILL MOYERS: That was a genuine call to the barricades … //

full long interview transcript … // … and finally the interview video, 33.40 min.

Links:

Bill Moyers.com;

45 Years After MLK Assassination, What Have We Learned? At the Mason Temple in Memphis, labor and civil rights leaders gathered to commemorate the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s final speech, on AlterNet, by Adele M. Stan, April 4, 2013.

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