Martin Luther King in 1968: Eradicate Poverty and Homelessness, Whatever the Cost

The Poor People’s Campaign was conceived to create the political pressure required to enact the types of economic changes that Dr. King and his advisers believed were necessary. “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters,” King said during a February 1968 trip to Mississippi, “…but now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.” The same month, he announced to reporters demands for a $30 billion annual investment in antipoverty measures, a government commitment to full employment, enactment of a guaranteed income and funding for the construction of 500,000 affordable housing units per year.

Read the rest here, via The Nation.

More on the Poor People’s Campaign here.

Occupy DC 1.0:  I was never, ever taught about the economic aspects of King’s vision in school.  Nothing about the Poor People’s Campaign, carried out after King’s death, or Resurrection City, the PPC’s Washington, DC shantytown.  Were you?  While the occupation and the PPC were criticized for not having concrete goals toward economic justice, Dr. King himself had very clear demands. Mark Engler notes:

One of King’s most sustained pieces of economic reflection appeared in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? The work provides an important window into King’s thinking at the end of his life.

In the book, King articulated a Keynesian, demand-side critique of the American marketplace. He argued, “We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution.” Unless working Americans and the poor were able to obtain good jobs and increase their purchasing power–their ability to pump money back into the economy–it would be sapped of its dynamism. “We must create full employment or we must create incomes,” King wrote. “People must be made consumers by one method or the other.”

King criticized Johnson’s War on Poverty for being too piecemeal. While housing programs, job training and family counseling were not themselves unsound, he wrote that “all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis…. At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived.”

Rather than continuing with “fragmentary and spasmodic reforms,” King advocated that the government provide full employment. “We need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted,” he wrote. “New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”

We’re still doing it piecemeal. Perhaps more important than honoring Dr. King with a national day of service would be honoring him and continuing his work with a national day of protest.  A national week or month or decade.  Imagine what he would have achieved, imagine where we’d be on the long arc bending finally towards justice, had King survived into the present.  Racial justice and non-violence weren’t the only things he was right about, they’re just easiest parts of his witness to praise in mixed political company. As a nation, we’ve forgotten that King knew what rising generations are only now beginning to intuit. How long must King sing the song of 1968, how long from the grave, before we see and realize the fullness of his vision?

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