Martin Luther King Jr: A Legacy Ignored


…And one day we must ask the question, Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…

Martin Luther King on racism, poverty, capitalism, and other big questions

In the states, Americans are observing a day of remembrance in honour of Martin Luther King Jr.  Today the networks and blogs will showcase Kings famous I Have A Dream speech.  This speech makes people comfortable because it was from a time in which Dr. King chose to focus on race.  Most can see segregation today, for the evil that it was.  The unfairness of being forced to pay taxes without the ability to vote, based on the colour of ones skin is truly against democratic principals and this simple truth is recognized today.  These concepts make people comfortable because they do not require a great change in philosophy.   When we reduce Dr. King’s dream to these ideas, it is easy to believe that his wishes have been fulfilled and that we are living in a post racial world.

There is a reason why few will quote Dr. King after 1963.  At the time of his death, Dr. King had an approval rating of less than 30%. King had begun to protest the Vietnam war and was about to engage in a war on poverty that would unite all of the working class against oppression.   The link between civil rights and anti-poverty caused many of King’s liberal allies to experience fear and anxiety.  It was his goal to force Congress into passing an Economic Bill of Rights for the nation’s poor. King realized then, what so many fail to recognize today; capitalism leads to impoverishment and the specific devaluation of large sections of society.  Is a man worth less because the system in which he resides is designed to deny subsistence and dignity?

A year before his 1968 death in Memphis, in his “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” King wrote: “I am now convinced that the simplest solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

King wanted a guaranteed income to insure that all citizens lived at a median.  African Americans have long since realized that their labour helped to build the U.S .into a country of riches.  Slavery was based in race but it was also about establishing the cheapest form of labour.   Without this labour, the U.S. would never have become a country of wealth and to this day this fact is denied to promote the false idea of meritocracy.   America has always ridden on the backs of the poor and the powerless.  To poor Whites it would offer Whiteness as a salve for the punishing conditions of poverty.  Just as in Dr. Kings time, the overvaluation of Whiteness still causes many to act in ways that are against their class interest.  A class struggle would unite the poor, thereby allowing its numbers to overwhelm the ruling elite.

King was hated at the end of his life because he realized that all oppression are linked and that a class struggle was a necessary next step to bring justice to a country of elites determined to protect their undeserved luxuries.  Kings ideas were not new and one can certainly see Marx in his writings, however; the elite  employed red scare tactics to taint his message.  Though pure capitalism has proven to be an impossibility, the ruling bourgeoisie  have managed to convince  the poor who are themselves dependent upon social safety measures, that socialism constitutes an evil.  In the conversations regarding health care, you can specifically see this strategy play out today. 

If we are to fulfill Dr. Kings legacy, we must do more than strive for a world in which race division no longer exists.  We must work towards a world in which the poor no longer exist as a class.  This is the dream that few remember as being part of Dr. Kings message.  If we are going to dedicate a day in  celebration to his life, reducing the message to the concepts that make us comfortable does a disservice to everything he stood for.

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty”.

-Dr. Martin Luther King-

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