MLK Day Remarks: Where We Go From Here

Posted on January 21, 2013

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Dr. King Remarks:

Austin C. McCoy

1/21/2013

Today I will address two questions that the organizers prepared for us—one addressing “progress” since the March on Washington, and then I will address what we could do to help President Obama in his second term, or, where we go from here.

I want to start with a quotation:

“The main consequences of this revolution in attitude would be respect for persons of color and persons who are poor. This respect would inevitably lead to fulfillment of rights to share in the ownership of property, management of community institutions, and representation at every level of decision-making. Mass participation by the poor is an absolute prerequisite for full equality.

In addition to a revolution in attitude, our country must undergo a revolution in values. The billions of dollars now directed toward destruction and military containment must be redirected toward a Bill of Rights for the disadvantaged. Such a Bill of Rights should provide an adequate education, income, home, recreation, as well as physical and mental health care,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” November 1967.

Dr. King published his editorial, “The American Negro:  A Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” in the New York Times on November 17, 1967. As you may have noticed, Dr. King paid attention to not just racial inequality, but to the relationships between various structures—racism, economics, and the military—that served to produce various inequalities, even one’s he neglected such as those around sex. He adapted this editorial from his book, Why We Can’t Wait, which he published the year after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King first suggested a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” to eradicate poverty and he called for the U.S. to construct a real full employment economy. Pointing out the contradictions between wealth and poverty in the U.S., King declared, “The energetic and creative expansion of work opportunities…is an imperative worthy of the richest nation on earth, whose abundance is an embarrassment as long as millions of poor are imprisoned and constantly self-renewed within an expanding population.[1] King’s thoughts on poverty, race, and class in 1964 foreshadowed his future anti-poverty organizing that he expected to manifest in the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.[2]

My aforementioned illustrations on King’s thoughts about economic justice reflect the theme in my response to the question about how King would have gauged our progress since the March on Washington. The year before Dr. King died, he acknowledged the limited progress that the civil rights movement achieved with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, however, he stressed the persistence of structural racism and how U.S. capitalism and imperialism produced poverty at home.[3] Thus, briefly accounting the growth of economic inequality represents the only means of addressing the question of progress after the civil rights movement.

Where were we? Where are we now?

For many observers and scholars, the early-1970s as the crucial moment where poverty reached its lowest levels and the American workers’ earning potential rose to its zenith.[4] Since 1973, however, most Americans have experienced a stagnation and/or decline in wages. And, ultimately, racial and sex inequality has persisted and class inequality has grown:

  • According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), CEO earnings grew 725 percent whereas worker compensation grew by only 5.7 percent. Between 1978 and 2011[5]
  • The median income for all families in 1973 was $62,316 (adjusted for inflation) whereas the median income for all families in 2009 was $50,000. The median income for white families in 1973, was 62,310 whereas in 2009 it was 51,861 and for black families the median income was 37, 593 whereas in 2009 it was $32,584.[6]
  • According to a recent New York Times blog post on inequality, real wages for men declined from $33, 880 in 1968 to $32,986 in 2011.[7]
  • The poverty rate was 11.1 percent in 1973 and it hovered around 15 percent in 2010-11, the highest since 1993. The 11.1 percentage rate translates into over 50 million Americans impoverished.[8] And Women are more likely to earn poverty wages—32 percent of women earned around $11/hour or less.[9]

Now, of course, some conservatives would like to pin these stats on the Obama administration, but it is tough to do so without considering recent economic and political history. The U.S. and global economy has experienced serious volatility in the last forty years:

  • Oil shocks in 1973 and 1979 and rising energy prices
  • Stagflation (high unemployment + inflation)
  • FED-induced recession of the late-1970s and early-1980s. (“The Volcker shock.”)

Of course, one cannot forget the terrible effects that various developments had on working and poor Americans such as:

  • corporate political organizing
  • union busting
  • the gutting of our safety net
  • the privatization of public goods and services (i.e. President George W. Bush handing over college student loans to banks)
  • deindustrialization and the mobility of capital
  • the emergence of low-wage and non-unionized work
  • supply-side tax cuts

Dr. King did not live to see all of these developments (In fact, he lived and operated politically in a moment of relative economic growth. He, like other activists, often presumed this growth would last, thus creating a space for a burgeoning politics of redistribution.), but, considering my example of his thinking about equality and economic justice towards the end of this life, it would be difficult to argue that he would have welcomed these circumstances.

Where Do We Go?

Dr. King often combined a radical critique of inequality in American society with a legible political program. He urged us to revolutionize our values—to move from a less materialistic, profit-driven, and militaristic society to a peaceful, more socialistic, and humanistic one.[10] Dr. King coupled that with calls for strengthening labor rights and unions, rebuilding the nation’s cities, addressing structural racism through affirmative action programs, using the public and private sectors to create full employment, a guaranteed income, and calling for his “bill of rights of the disadvantaged” to lift the poor out of poverty. To achieve these goals, Dr. King prepared himself and his allies to engage in mass civil disobedience, even if it meant disrupting the normal functions of the nation’s cities, or in the case of the Poor People’s Campaign, Washington, D.C.[11] Dr. King (and he is not the only civil rights activist to do so) combined an active political imagination and militant action with a policy agenda. Plenty of activists and organizations, including many of my activist friends, adhere to that model already.

Sometimes, however, talking of exercising a broader political imagination or thinking about society in more radical  terms almost appears foolish especially living in a context where many Americans seem more interested in pragmatic and orthodox solutions to their problems. The intense political polarization—facilitated through the construction of gerrymandered little fiefdoms for Democrats and Republicans, our often poisonous political discourse, and “crisis” governance, where routine government actions such as creating a budget and/or raising the debt ceiling become epic political showdowns, blunts serious discussions of alternatives on a larger scale.

Yet, Dr. King, and the many other activists whom we should also celebrate today like Ella Baker, welfare rights organizer Johnnie Tillmon, Bob Moses, and Myles Horton, challenged themselves to think and act, radically. So, what do we do?  Not one of my activist friends would have to stop what they are doing. We may continue to mobilize all of our resources—intellectual, physical, monetary, etc.—and push those in power to consider more just solutions. We may continue to think about and devising alternative economic and social programs to eradicate inequality and poverty. We need to think of innovative ways to construct a more just economy grounded in the understanding that poverty remains unacceptable in this country. Dr. King pushed President Lyndon B. Johnson and congressional Democrats and Republicans for full employment, without accepting any lesser outcome. Dr. King and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) pushed elected leaders while building their own local economic organization—Operation Breadbasket—and while working in local labor struggles. We will have to continue to pursue all political avenues as well—inside and out—and combine them with independent political efforts.

While I do not believe in the cliché that history repeats itself, I have always used history as a guide—the type of change we want to see and want to believe in—universal health care, a national living wage law, equal and affordable education, at least, and other economic protections for the most vulnerable in society—will likely go to Washington resembling the 1932 Bonus Army, A Phillip Randolph’s threatened March on Washington Movement during the 1930s and 1940s, Bayard Rustin’s, A. Philip Randolph’s, and Dr. King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and possibly the current Occupy Movement. Change will probably look less like one person–President Barack Obama or even Dr. King.

Many are aware of the stirring speech that Dr. King delivered in Memphis the night before his death. Some may forget that in his mountaintop speech, Dr. King spoke of achieving economic justice through defending and strengthening labor rights and organizing the poor.  Dr. King used his spiritual and political imagination to convey to the audience about the difficult road of Jericho—the treacherous road to Jerusalem that Dr. King used as a parable for the Memphis sanitation workers’ struggles for economic rights. We have embarked on a similar path, hopefully in the direction toward greater equality and justice, and the question remains:  How do we secure safe passage on the way to the mountaintop? Dr. King knew that we would not get there by accepting established explanations for racial, sexual, and class inequality, nor would we get there by only casting a ballot and accepting “politics as usual.” Continuing to activate our political imagination—thinking, writing, and acting radically—and translating our imagination into a program should allow for passage. Dr. King told us that we had to expand our political imagination beyond the limited horizon that our political system and discourse allows in order to reach our destination. Asking that of anyone, including myself, almost reeks of foolishness, because it is difficult not to take whatever compromise one could get considering our current state of political affairs.  Yet, that is what is to be done. That is where we must go. Not one individual we celebrate or worship acquired that status without sounding a little foolish, not even Dr. King.


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait, 139.

[2] I paraphrased this passage from an earlier blog post about Dr. King. “MLK Meditation, #1:  His First March on Washington and Why We Can’t Wait,” Keepin’ Up With the World, 2.0, oneglobe.wordpress.com, August 28, 2010.

[3] Dr. King connects the inequities embedded in capitalism and imperialism in various writings and sermons, especially see Where Do We Go From Here:  Chaos or Community? and “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” for two prominent examples.

[4] The poverty rate dropped to 11.1 percent in 1973 and rose to 15.2 percent by the end of Reagan’s first term where recession hampered Americans during the early 1980s. I acquired this statistic from Tavis Smiley’s and Cornel West’s The Rich and the Rest of Us:  A Poverty Manifesto, page 17.

[5] Lawrence Mishel and Natalie Sabadish, “CEO Pay and the Top 1%:  How executive compensation and financial-sector pay have fueled income inequality,” Economic Policy  Institute, May 2, 2012, accessed January 20, 2013, http://www.epi.org/publication/ib331-ceo-pay-top-1-percent/.

[6] US Census Bureau, “Money Income in 1973 of Families and Persons in the United States”; “Table 690. Money Income of Households—Percent Distribution by Income Level, Race, and Hispanic Origin in Constant (2009) Dollars:  1990 to 2009.

[8] “Record U.S. Poverty Rate Holds as Inequality Grows,” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 12, 2012, accessed January 20, 2013, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-09-12/record-u-dot-s-dot-poverty-rate-holds-as-inequality-grows.

[9] Lawrence Mishel, “Women much more likely to earn poverty-level wages,” Economic Policy Institute, September 19, 2012, accessed January 20, 2013, http://www.epi.org/publication/women-earn-poverty-level-wages/.

[10] See Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here, especially the last chapter, “The World House.”

[11] See Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1968), 14-15.

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Posted in: MLK, Politics