When we remember Martin Luther King Jr., we usually think of his work for civil rights and racial justice, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We might also remember him for his leadership in popularizing nonviolent action and civil disobedience as strategies to gain rights and respect for African-Americans.
But King’s priorities changed in the last few years before his 1968 assassination, from the plight of African-Americans to that of all those in poverty — black, white, brown, Latino, Asian, Native American. His goal was not just civil rights, such as being served at a lunch counter, but basic human rights. He advocated not just political rights, such as the ability to vote, but economic rights, such as full employment, affordable housing, health care for all, adequate food and the right to a quality education.
What good was sitting at a lunch counter if a person didn’t have the price of a meal? King wondered. Housing integration was a pipe dream if neither blacks nor whites could afford to buy a house. More jobs were important, but not if they paid an insufficient wage.
King believed that poverty would not be solved by organizations involved in the “war on poverty,” but rather by nonviolent action to ensure economic human rights for everyone in the country.
In his 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” King proposed a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” modeled after the G.I. Bill of Rights given to soldiers after World War II. In his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here?” he also advocated a guaranteed annual income and “power for poor people.”
King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, exactly one year before his death, pointed out that poverty could be eliminated by changing federal spending priorities. Instead of allocating billions toward a futile war in Asia, those additional funds could provide a guaranteed income, enabling every person to meet their basic needs either from a job or government support.
He cited economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s estimate that $20 billion a year (in 1967 dollars and adjusted for inflation), a fraction of what was being given to the Pentagon and about the same amount spent in Vietnam, was enough to wipe out poverty.
King’s last major initiative was the 1968 Poor People’s March, a campaign to bring thousands to Washington, D.C. The Poor People’s March attempted to bring labor and low-income groups together, but, possibly because of the assassination of King, that goal was never permanently realized.
Marchers came to pressure Congress and the administration of Lyndon Johnson to begin restructuring society to address the needs of those of all skin colors with the lowest incomes. Their message was that ending poverty is good for everyone, both poor and rich.
The “war on poverty” of the last 50 years (1965-2015) has focused on social agencies providing services to low-income people and benefit programs such as food stamps and fuel assistance, but there has been no appreciable impact. The percentage of those in poverty has only dropped a few percentage points in the last half century to today’s rate of 14.5 percent.
Poverty stubbornly persists, yet it can be eliminated. Several European countries, Sweden and Luxembourg in particular, have instituted guaranteed incomes and provided economic human rights to their people, reducing their poverty rates to as low as 1 percent.
Public debate about income inequality in the U.S. and recent demonstrations by low-paid workers on behalf of a living wage ($15 per hour) have shown that poverty is a hot topic, especially when combined with issues of discrimination brought up by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Perhaps it is time to re-create a Poor People’s March for the 21st century, where those in poverty can again tell the world that everyone deserves dignity, a living wage and the security of knowing they can meet their basic needs. We need not continue to witness the suffering of so many if we listen to King’s prophetic vision about ending poverty through ensuring economic human rights for all.
Larry Dansinger has been a community organizer on anti-poverty issues for over 40 years and lives in Bangor.