Remembering all of Martin Luther King’s social justice agenda
Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers a speech to a crowd of approximately 7,000 people on May 17, 1967 at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, California. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
On January 15th — the actual birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — the People’s Organization For Progress held its annual march in his honor in Newark. The group believes the best way to honor Dr. King is to protest injustice and put forward a social justice agenda.
The theme of this year’s march centered on voting rights and racial justice. As scores of us marched through the freezing, 18-degree cold it was clear to us that most of the social justice agenda that Dr. King was fighting for is yet to be achieved.
What is also clear is how virulent and intractable a disease racism and white supremacy is in the United States during the 21st Century. Despite the gains made by the civil rights movement during the sixties, racial inequality and segregation are greater today than they were when Dr. King was alive.
Racially motivated violence and attacks are on the rise. Racial discrimination and oppression are still very much a part of this society. The black-white wealth gap is as wide now as it was in 1968, the year of King’s assassination.
Fighting racism in all of its forms was at the top of the agenda then and it must be at the top of the agenda today. Some people claim racism is less of a problem today. A few even claim it no longer exists. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The idea of racial inferiority is still very much alive in America, and it must be denounced, condemned, and relegated to the trash heap of society. We must continue to challenge racist ideology, laws, policies, practices, procedures, behaviors, and culture. We must root it out of our institutions and society. We must work fervently to eliminate racial inequality.
We marched to demand passage of voting rights bills passed by the House and scheduled to come before the Senate. We also marched to demand abolition of the filibuster, which may be used to block passage of these voting rights bills.
Here we are, 22 years into the 21st Century, and we are still marching and fighting for rights that Dr. King and many others died, bled, and sacrificed for in my lifetime, less than 60 years ago.
A major achievement of Dr. King and the civil rights movement was the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, King had not been assassinated yet when the effort to roll back these gains began. It has been gutted by subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
And that effort continues at the state level. Since the November 2020 presidential election, more than 400 bills have been introduced in 48 states to restrict voting rights, and 34 of these have become law in 19 states.
This voter suppression effort is but one facet of the January 6 insurrection and the racist and fascist attempted coup. The attack on the Capitol ended in a day but the coup and the voter suppression effort are ongoing and will impact elections from 2022 through 2024. We must build the kind of broad multi-racial coalition that Dr. King was trying to create in order to stop it.
In the spirit of Dr. King’s struggle to expand ballot access, we demanded other voting reforms, including the return of civics education to our public schools, the establishment of same-day voter registration during elections, the passage by Congress of a voting rights amendment to the Constitution that will guarantee every person’s right to vote, the abolition of the Electoral College, and the direct election of the president by the people.
Economic Bill of Rights
Even while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was on its way to adoption, King was expanding the scope of his movement. He wasn’t leaving the struggle for civil rights, voting rights, and racial justice: He wanted to connect it firmly to the struggle for economic justice.
Dr. King discusses this in his book “Why We Can’t Wait.” It was published in 1964, the same year that he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Many are familiar with this book because it contains his famous “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.”
What is often overlooked here is that he also puts forward the need for “a bill of rights for the socially disadvantaged” in order to eliminate hunger and poverty at home and abroad. He believed that every human being had a right to food, housing, employment, education, health care, and the other necessities of life.
He would eventually call it an “economic bill of rights.” In his book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” published a few years later, King called for a million people to march on Washington and engage in massive civil disobedience to pressure Congress to pass this economic bill of rights.
One can see here the origins of his 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. While he was working on this project, King was called upon by the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee to support their efforts to have a union, decent wages, and safe working conditions.
King supported the labor movement and it supported him. He went to Memphis, against the advice of members of his staff, to march with the workers there. In so doing he went to his death. He was assassinated, shot to death, on April 4, 1968.
King supported the struggles of workers for higher wages and for a increase in the federal minimum wage. Right now the federal minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25 per hour. It hasn’t been increased in more than 10 years.
At our march we demanded that the minimum wage be increased to $15 per hour. King would have supported this demand but he went much farther. He said workers were entitled to a living wage and to earn enough to have a decent life.
In addition, he supported the idea of a guaranteed income or universal income for everyone that would establish an economic foundation in society to prevent people from falling into poverty.
Passage of the PRO Act to facilitate worker unionization was another labor related demand called for at the march. Today only about 11% of the U.S. labor force is unionized, which is down from about 49 percent after World War II. Ironically, American workers are less unionized today than in 1968 when King was assassinated.
King was a vocal critic of police brutality. In his famous “I Have A Dream” speech he mentions police brutality twice. We marched for police reform and called upon the New Jersey Legislature to pass a bill that would allow municipalities to establish police review boards with subpoena power. And we demanded action at the federal level and called upon Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act and the Breathe Act.
In his 1967 speech “The Other America,” delivered at Stanford University, Dr. King discussed how the U.S. government gave white settlers land that provided them with an “economic floor.” However, similar action was not taken for the formerly enslaved African Americans. He quoted Frederick Douglass, who said emancipation meant freedom to starve.
So, on King’s birthday we marched for reparations for the descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States. We called for the passage of bills by the Legislature and by Congress which would establish reparations study commissions at both the state and federal levels.
Health care was one of Dr. King’s economic rights. He wanted all people to receive the health care they need. For this reason many believe that Dr. King would have supported the call made at our demonstration for universal health care through Medicare For All.
Dr. King’s vision for a more just and equal society cannot be achieved without major changes to education in this nation. When we marched to the King statue in Newark, we made the call for free college education in the United States and the abolition of all student debt.
Toward the end of his life, King publicly opposed the war in Vietnam and expressed anti-imperialist views. His reasons for doing so can be found in his speech “A Time To Break Silence” which he delivered April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City.
This same speech was popularly known as “Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam.” King said he opposed the war because it was racist and immoral. He condemned it for diverting funds from domestic needs to the military for imperialist wars abroad.
Had he lived, King would have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other unjust U.S adventures abroad. He became increasingly critical of the American “military industrial complex.” He said we spent too much on the military and too little on human needs. He said a nation that spends more on its military than it does on social uplift is facing “spiritual doom.”
Those of us who are trying to carry forward the social justice legacy of Martin Luther King into the 21st Century must target the problem of ever increasing military spending. Congress just passed a $768 billion defense bill that actually gave the Pentagon billions more than it asked for. We must demand drastic cuts in military spending.
However, while Dr. King would have supported the demands we marched for, I believe he would have wanted us to strive for more far-reaching changes. King was more than a reformer. He was a revolutionary. He not only wanted policy, legislative, and institutional change, he wanted systemic change.
King became increasingly critical of our system of “monopolistic capitalism.” He believed that poverty and racial and class inequality were rooted in our economic system. He said we needed “a radical redistribution of power and wealth” in our society, and a “radical transformation of our socioeconomic system.”
This is the part of Dr. King’s social justice agenda that we rarely hear about. Many choose not to discuss it or pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s the part you don’t hear about at King celebrations. It cannot be ignored any longer. It is worthy of examination and debate, and it is time to restore it to its rightful place in the social justice agenda.
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