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May 17, 2017
12 Min read time
Coretta Scott King saw economic precarity as not just a side effect of racial subjugation, but as central to its functioning.
On February 7 Senate Republicans blocked Senator Elizabeth Warren from reading a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King in which she opposed the nomination of Jeff Sessions to a federal bench. For Scott King, Sessions nomination to Alabama’s Southern District was personal: she inveighed against his “shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters” and wrote that his confirmation as a federal judge would “irreparably damage the work of my husband.”
Had he been confirmed, Sessions would have had jurisdiction over Scott King’s hometown in Perry County. Born there in 1927, she understood firsthand the violent history of such authoritarian enclaves. Her great-grandfather had been enslaved, her great-uncle lynched. Ten years old during the 1937–38 recession, she picked cotton to pay for the cost of her education. On Thanksgiving 1942, when Scott King was fifteen, their home was set ablaze. She lost her prized Bessie Smith albums in the fire and gained a visceral understanding of the depths to which white supremacists would go to maintain political, economic, and social dominance. When she was thirty-seven, the nephew of one of her closest childhood friends was beaten and killed by an Alabama state trooper, helping to inspire the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
'I am not a ceremonial symbol—I am an activist. I didn’t just emerge after Martin died—I was always there and involved.'
While a new posthumous memoir of Scott King, My Life, My Love, My Legacy (2017), ghostwritten by longtime friend Barbara Reynolds, does not fully delve into the most radical aspects of Scott King’s vision of social justice, the occasion of her letter being read in the Senate is a call to remember her commitment to ending all forms of violence—chief among them, the economic violence of wagelessness. Importantly, she had held these sorts of views before she met Martin, having been influenced by her involvement with the Progressive Party of the 1940s prior to her relationship with her husband. However, for fear of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, she downplayed her own political lineage as a socialist-leaning activist. But as Scott King clarified in 1976, “I am not a ceremonial symbol—I am an activist. I didn’t just emerge after Martin died—I was always there and involved.” Over the course of their relationship, it might be said that Scott King pulled her husband to the left, especially on the issue of the Vietnam War.
• • •
Four days after her husband’s murder on April 4, 1968, Scott King returned to Memphis to support the city’s striking sanitation workers. She marched with an estimated 50,000 people before concluding at a rally at the Memphis city hall. Amidst drizzling rain, she reminded her audience of the terrain they had traversed and the journey ahead: “We moved through . . . the period of desegregating public accommodations and on through voting rights, so that we could have political power. And now we are at the point where we must have economic power.” What did that mean to her in real terms? “Every man deserves a right to a job or an income,” she told the crowd of supporters.
Scott King saw economic precarity as not just a side effect of racial subjugation, but as central to its functioning. Political enfranchisement was just the first step. As she explained in 1976, “People couldn’t see the economics of the movement because of the drama. . . . [The] next step was parity in income distribution.” The solution Scott King promoted is an old one, but its time has come: legislation to provide federal governmental guarantees to employment, at living wages, where people are located, and in areas that serve social needs—rather than those of the market.
Such politics and values had been at the heart of black freedom movements since at least the late nineteenth century. Although many histories of welfare state development foreground the importance of Germany under Otto von Bismarck, there was also a contemporaneous black radical tradition of welfare state struggle during Reconstruction. W. E. B. Du Bois called this tradition “abolition democracy,” defined as a focus on creating new democratic institutions to provide safety and social provision while also seeking to eradicate institutions of racial violence.
Coretta Scott King was committed to ending all forms of violence—chief among them, the violence of economic precarity.
For Scott King the struggle for the franchise was indissolubly tied to the struggle for economic well-being and material flourishing. In practice that meant targeting the dominance of Dixiecrats in Congress, whose power had systematically limited the advance of Keynesianism across the color line. Congress’s economic policies were tethered to the daily brutality of Jim Crow voter suppression, from which some of the most powerful members of Congress derived their authority.
For example, on Mother’s Day, 1968, Scott King and members of the Poor People’s Campaign planned to target Arkansas congressman Wilbur Mills. The Washington Post had highlighted Mills as the “most powerful advocate” of policies that kicked mothers off of welfare and obligated them, when deemed “appropriate,” to be forced to work. Mills controlled the House’s Ways and Means Committee, and thus the details on major revenue bills. Widely understood as “the most important man on Capitol Hill,” he was a consistent roadblock to generating greater levels of social spending that might alleviate some of the economic violence that Scott King consistently decried.
By focusing protest on Mills and his fellow members of Congress, Scott King and the Mother’s Day marchers were highlighting how the powerful Dixiecrats did not simply pack up their weaponized briefcases after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. They retained their power on Congressional committees. Sessions’s 1980s prosecutions of voting rights activists was yet another tactic to maintain political power after the Voting Rights Act. But the Voting Rights Act did provide a means for advancing the political power of the black freedom movement. And in the decades after her husband’s assassination Scott King wholly dedicated herself to using the vote to this end.
• • •
In 1974 Scott King co-founded the National Committee for Full Employment/Full Employment Action Council (NCFE/FEAC) to fight for legislation that guaranteed jobs for all Americans. Guaranteed jobs for all who wanted them—regardless of race or gender—had long been a goal of Scott King’s and the black freedom movement. But in a time of rising inflation and unemployment, and fearing a growing backlash against the civil rights agenda, Scott King believed that guaranteed jobs were also necessary to mollify fears of economic competition on the part of white workers. In the 1940s her father’s sawmill was burned to the ground two weeks after its opening, following his refusal to sell to it to a white man. She knew that shared feelings of precarity could provoke racist violence just as much as they might elicit solidarity. Scott King’s struggle for guaranteed jobs to anyone who wanted one was as tactical as it was moral.
In current debates, demands for guaranteed jobs and demands for a basic income are often framed as diametrically opposed. But for Scott King and the broader black freedom movement, these were coupled together. Scott King was an ardent advocate for the National Welfare Rights Organization’s calls for a guaranteed annual income (which, in contrast to some basic income schemes, always emphasized the need for a cash benefit of a living wage). But she spent more time campaigning for guaranteed jobs. In these proposals, there were income guarantees that would be provided for those who are unable to work due to age, ability, or care-giving responsibilities. The goal was to expand the welfare state through social movement victories, not impose workfare.
The black freedom movement did not see guaranteed jobs and basic income as opposites. The goal was to expand the welfare state, not impose workfare.
It is also important to note that “full employment” for Scott King did not mean what it more commonly means today: a certain percentage of unemployment that economists and policymakers deem necessary in order to keep inflation at bay. As this conceptualization of “full employment” was taking hold, NCFE/FEAC denounced this style of public policy. The organization described it as an “unconscionable view that the evils imposed by unemployment upon scores of millions of people whose breadwinners are unemployed are acceptable in the name of restraining inflation.” Scott King and NCFE/FEAC insisted that full employment meant that the government needed to provide a good job to all who wanted one.
Likewise, NCFE/FEAC pursued a path away from the types of military Keynesianism that had become entrenched after the failure of the Progressive Party in the 1940s. As Scott King explained in 1975, “This nation has never honestly dealt with the question of a peacetime economy.” For her, economic well-being could no longer rely on building weapons for the military–industrial complex. Just as her husband had emphasized the importance of safe and dignified work through his support for Memphis’s sanitation workers, Scott King showed her support for human services by marching alongside the black women hospital workers of Charleston, South Carolina, during their 113-day strike in 1969.
Scott King’s vision of full employment emphasized jobs for social needs. “We are going to have to create meaningful jobs. . . . Jobs that would serve some human need. . . . As long as there are people you are going to have certain health care needs, educational needs, things that you know will make for a better quality of living.” She believed that it was essential to move beyond jobs “that were really created with the profit-making motive.” Accordingly NCFE/FEAC called for jobs programs to create housing for all; to encourage environmental conservation; to build mass transportation; and to provide more funding for the arts, cultural, and recreational programming. The organization sought to reduce the amount of time people worked, without a reduction in pay.
To do this, Scott King and NCFE/FEAC focused on shaping legislation. They were the grassroots force behind the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978. To support the bill, NCFE/FEAC’s organized a “Full Employment Action Week” in 1977. They mobilized more than 1.5 million people in protests and actions in three hundred cities. Sixty thousand people turned out to the rally in Buffalo, New York. Another forty thousand people attended the full employment parade in Erie, Pennsylvania. NCFE/FEAC worked alongside groups such as the National Council of Churches to create local organizations in Boston, Denver, Columbus, Des Moines, St. Louis, and other cities. The leadership of the Council of Churches echoed Scott King’s assessments during the week of action, saying that the federal government should serve as the “employer of last resort” to create jobs in “energy, mass transportation, housing, education, [and] health care.”
But these efforts were not enough. On the treacherous road from bill to law, the most innovative aspects of that law were stripped away. Provisions such as the creation of a legally enforceable right to a job—with a national planning mechanism to achieve this—were victims of intense opposition from the Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers. Consequently, as Americans for Democratic Action reported to its members at the time, the Senate Banking Committee “did a real hatchet job on the bill.” Although forced to compromise with some of the provisions in the Banking Committee’s version of the bill, the new law still demanded that unemployment be reduced to 3 percent by 1983 and that the Federal Reserve now give biannual testimony to Congress on how the Fed was working to achieve these goals (since the Fed had been effectively ignoring its mandate to facilitate maximum employment since the 1950s). For Scott King, this partial victory was not the end, but one point in a longer journey.
• • •
Scott King’s struggles to create guaranteed jobs programs continue to hold resonance for today. What is the meaning of civil rights victories in the face of persistent unemployment? “The conscious politically motivated economic policies of the past few years that are keeping large numbers of Americans unemployed, especially blacks, are nothing less than a frontal assault on the gains and victories of the civil rights movement,” she said during the Full Employment Action Week. “What good is the legal right to sit in a restaurant if one cannot afford the price of food? What good is the promise of fair employment when there is no employment for black Americans?” These questions endure in this era of economic inequality: the Movement for Black Lives has similarly demanded guaranteed jobs. The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, whose leaders in the 1970s had worked alongside NCFE/FEAC, continues its longstanding efforts in this area. Each group carries on the legacy of black working-class political formations developing radical and expansive solutions to the problems of its era.
Scott King knew that precarity could provoke racist violence just as much as it might elicit solidarity.
Others draw explicitly on Scott King’s legacy. In addition to Senator Warren’s efforts to bring Scott King’s voice to the debates around Sessions, the Center for Popular Democracy’s Fed Up campaign is keeping the goal of full employment on the table. On February 15 the organization’s “Full Employment Defenders” headed to Congress to attend Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen’s biannual “Humphrey-Hawkins” testimony—a key remnant of the 1978 law. However, in 1979, only a year after the law was passed, under Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, the hearings bordered on farcical, with Volcker asserting that controlling inflation should continue to take precedence over the Fed’s employment mandate—a direct contravention of the NCFE/FEAC’s goals. The infamous “Volcker Shock” then raised interests rates to heretofore-unfathomable levels and helped bring rates of unemployment for black workers to as high as 19.5 percent in 1983. And too often since, this attitude—that puts fears of inflation above the lives of unemployed people—has guided the Fed’s policy. But Fed Up is using the tools Scott King helped create—such as the Fed’s own testimony before legislators—to try to change that.
As Shawn Sebastian, Fed Up’s Co-Director, told me, “Coretta Scott King’s vision of full employment is sophisticated in its targets but also ultimately viscerally relevant to the lives of everyday people, particularly people of color. . . . Scott King created a handle on this lever of power at the Federal Reserve that was designed to be remote and inaccessible that I like to think we have been able to grab onto a few generations later.” And for Sebastian and his comrades, the goal of full employment has been able to guide them as the Trump agenda coalesces. As he explained, “[Trump’s] broader push to deregulate the banks has shifted everything, but Full Employment remains our lodestar. . . . We’ve used the [goal] of Full Employment that Coretta Scott King created decades ago to be a compass as we navigate an uncertain future. Coretta Scott King’s sharp analysis and moral clarity continue to guide us.”
What will Scott King’s legacy look like when and if the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Movement for Black Lives, Fed Up, and their allies are successful in achieving governmental guarantees to jobs and income? A moment of victory can suddenly recast the past history of losses. Scott King and NCFE/FEAC sowed seeds that needed time and cultivation to eventually flower. During a time of drought, nevertheless, these seeds persist.
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