January 15 is the anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday. Every year, there are commemorative activities to celebrate the life and courageous stand of King, learn the lessons of the civil rights movement, and figure out directions for the future. Dr King’s political life, his dedication to the cause of civil rights for all and racial equality deserve to be remembered, and new generations should heed the lessons of his life. His message, that direct social action can effect meaningful change in an unjust system, resonates throughout the years since his assassination. The Obama administration will no doubt encourage people, particularly the young, to examine the civil rights movement, take inspiration from Dr King, and hopefully become enthused by the values that motivated King’s life.
In celebrating King’s life and work, there is one aspect of his philosophy that will not be publicised by the Obama regime – the critique of the economic and military power of the American empire, advocated by Dr King, in the course of calling for a complete revolution in values. King, like his contemporary the great novelist and civil rights advocate James Baldwin, understood the predatory criminality of the US empire, its drive for world domination, and that the racism of the capitalist state was systemic and vital to its continuation. King elaborated that the same white power structure spending millions on a war of conquest in Vietnam, disguised as it was in a humanitarian cloak, was the same oligarchic power structure condemning black Americans to a life of poverty, unemployment, squalor and desperation. King denounced the glaring inequalities of wealth he witnessed in his own country, the belly of the beast.
How did Dr King propose to tackle the growing problem of inequality? He suggested four measures that are considered radical by today’s neoliberal economic orthodoxy. Knowing that economic and political inequality are intertwined, he suggested the following four steps:
(1) Ratify an economic bill of rights – this involved guaranteeing that all citizens would have employment, adequate education, housing and so on. This would be the first step, Dr King reasoned, in an economic and social bill of rights.
(2) Guarantee every person a minimum income – this proposal, reinforced the idea of a minimum wage. Even then Republican President Richard Nixon suggested a guaranteed minimum income, but it was defeated by opposition from within his own party.
(3) Strengthen the workers-labour movement – Dr King realised that without a powerful labour movement, the workers, regardless of their racial background, would be at the mercy of an exploitative economic system.
In fact, on the day that Dr King was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee, he was about to speak at a rally in support of a strike by low-paid sanitation workers in that city. The sanitation workers, all of whom were black, were striking because of repeated refusals by management to listen to their case for a minimum wage. Two of their comrades had been killed on the job – crushed to death by unsafe garbage compactors. This in a time when sanitation workers had to collect refuse and garbage by themselves, removing dangerous and hazardous waste – dead animals, refuse, food scraps – in unhygienic conditions.
Dr King criticised the existing leadership of the labour movement at the time for failing to endorse the civil rights movement and the push for racial equality. He recognised that the two goals of economic and racial justice were two parts of the one goal for a humane society.
(4) Employment for any person who can work – every employable citizen had the right to a job, not just to get by, but for the purpose of achieving a livable income.
Barry Sheppard, long-term American socialist and labour activist, wrote for the Australian newspaper Red Flag that Dr King envisioned a broader struggle against the systemic inequality of the capitalism:
He began to see the struggle for racial equality as an economic struggle, and the capitalist system as the problem. In 1967, in a speech titled “The Other America”, he talked about “work-starved men searching for jobs that did not exist”.
He described the Black population as living on a “lonely island of poverty surrounded by an ocean of material prosperity”, and living in a “triple ghetto of race, poverty and human misery”.
The year Dr King spoke those words above (1967) was also the year in which he strongly denounced America’s imperial adventure in Vietnam, noting that spending millions of dollars on wars overseas while there was terrible poverty at home indicated a system in terminal decay, enriching a wealthy minority while abandoning the majority to a life of destitution.
Bill Moyers, a veteran American journalist and commentator, noted that Dr King desired a complete revolution of values to eradicate unemployment and poverty. Dr King launched a Poor People’s Campaign in the last years of his life, dedicated to combining people of all colours in one bloc to redress the vast economic inequalities of the American capitalist system. The Vietnam war, America’s crimes in that war, and the riots by black disenfranchised Americans in the 1960s radicalised King’s political outlook. He remained a Christian throughout his life, rejecting humanist atheism, but he blended together a radical critique of the capitalist system drawing from socialistic and democratic perspectives.
This is the Martin Luther King that we must remember today; not just as a icon of a long-finished struggle for civil rights, but as a passionate spokesperson for economic justice. He recognised that the fight for racial equality was bound up with the fight for economic and social equality. Strongly anti-war, he broke with the Johnson administration and criticised the latter for the Vietnam war. A year before his death, King stated that:
… A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”… The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
Dr King was prepared to go to jail for his actions and beliefs – and indeed he did. This is the legacy that we should remember today; not the anodyne, Obama-ised and harmless symbol of cosmetic change, but a radical who paid the ultimate price for challenging an unjust racial and economic system. It is the #BlackLivesMatter movement that is the true inheritor of Dr King’s political legacy.