Today in Washington DC, the new memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dedicated in a ceremony and his legacy heralded with speeches and parades. At the same time, Occupy DC and Stop the Machine marched against corporate and financial malfeasance, social inequities and war. Walking in the warm sun, we approached the Washington Monument chanting Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Main Street! Occupy everywhere and never give it back! as other marchers, demanding jobs and racial justice converged with us to mutual cheers and together we merged into the crowds already gathered around a stage by the monument.
It was a heartwarming celebration of Dr. King’s legacy.
In the last months of his life, Dr. King publicly connected the dots between racism, economic injustice, and war. In the months leading up to his assassination in April 1968, Dr King was increasingly critical of the war in Viet Nam, speaking publicly against the war for the first time in 1967. He was moving steadily toward a more radical critique in the truest sense of the word: getting to the root of social evils, which King began to see as unequal economic power.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation invited Dr. King to give the annual Massey Lectures, which were broadcast in November and December 1967. In his lectures (published in book form as The Trumpet of Conscience), King explained his newfound outspokenness against the war; he saw funding for anti-poverty programs being diverted to a military build-up in Viet Nam. He said: “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continues to draw men and skills and money like some demoniacal destructive suction tube.” Dr King continued: “And so I was increasingly compelled to see the war not only as a moral outrage but also as an enemy of the poor, and to attack it as such.” The war in Viet Nam, King went on to say, “was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily higher proportions relative to the rest of the population… I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
“The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”
Dr. King concluded the CBC broadcast by describing what was to become the Poor People’s Campaign, an undertaking of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Poor People’s Campaign was envisioned as being the largest, most extensive civil disobedience operation yet seen. King referred to this economic justice movement as the second phase of the civil rights movement. Using the nonviolent direct action tactics that characterized the first phase, Dr. King wanted to focus the nation’s attention on economic inequality and poverty. In the same way that the movement had drawn attention to racial injustice and forced the hand of legislators and politicians, King sought to evoke a citizen’s movement for an economic bill of rights, which included a thirty million dollar anti-poverty package, a commitment to full employment, and increased construction of low-cost housing.
The Poor People’s Campaign was going to bring a “multiracial army of poor people” to Washington DC to build–guess what?–a tent city on the Mall and paralyze the nation’s capital with acts of civil disobedience until the federal government redirected funds from the war in Viet Nam to this effort to abolish poverty. To his fellow members of the SCLC, King described this upcoming movement as a “question of restructuring the whole of the American economy.” He called for the nationalization of certain industries. “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters,” King said in a trip to Mississippi in February 1968, “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.”
This deliberately mulitcultural coalition would bring together not only poor people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, but all of those citizens who were dreaming of a new society, all Americans who envisioned a more just and equitable social order. It would be the culmination and fulfillment of the social change that the civil rights movement, the first phase, had begun.
Dr. King was of course assassinated in April 1968, while helping to lead a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He didn’t live to see the Poor People’s Campaign, which went ahead despite his murder. Demonstrators arrived in Washington DC in May 1968 and were housed in tents and shacks which they called Resurrection City. Without King’s charismatic leadership, however, and because so many legislators were and indeed President Johnson was so alienated by King’s criticism of the war, and because it was suddenly overshadowed by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Poor People’s Campaign packed up in June 1968 without much success.
It was more comfortable, for most Americans, to decry injustices in the Southern states. Looking more closely at poverty and economic justice in their own backyard was more difficult, more demanding, more costly and most would rather look the other way. Dr. King’s economic justice campaign did not galvanize them in the same way. King increasingly came under fire from former allies as well as critics for his outspokenness against the war, for going beyond civil rights to create more far reaching social change.
The Poor People’s Campaign has largely faded from the historical memory and is the most overlooked aspect of Dr. King’s legacy. Today, with the Occupy DC and Stop the Machine tent cities camped in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, respectively, it felt like Dr. King’s vision for a campaign to end economic injustice had been resurrected. I somehow felt that the work to which Dr. King was devoting himself in the last months of his life was coming alive. This was precisely the kind of movement he was building when he was murdered. It has become easy to pay lip service to the hero, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honor him with statues, memorials and a national holiday. An important part of his living legacy, however, is in the Resurrection Cities of the Occupy Wall Street movement.