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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a leader for our times. A thoroughgoing revolutionary, he advocated peaceful yet determined resistance to not only racial but also economic subjugation.
Though his approach was nonviolent, he never to advised passivity in the face of injustice or acceptance of the “politics of the possible.” His was a call to prolonged protest and self-sacrifice among people of conscience, a resolve strong enough to force a humanistic reordering of national priorities and transformation of the political economy. In opposing militarism and denouncing the Vietnam War during the height of its popularity, King proposed spending money instead on full employment, universal healthcare, affordable housing, and massive investments in education. He repeatedly cautioned that technology and corporate wealth were being used for selfish ends:
The contemporary tendency in our society is to base distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breath of meaning it is necessary to adjust this inequity.
On this national holiday, as we debate austerity measures, the jobs crisis, and gross inequality, we would do well to recall the entirety of King’s mission.
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King believed that racial justice was not the final aim of black Americans’ struggle, but rather part of a broader and more fundamental struggle for economic justice. Economic justice also was not the ultimate goal, but it was a condition of that goal: upholding the dignity and promise of human beings everywhere. While he supported blacks’ efforts to win political offices and championed black pride as a counter to negative anti-black stereotypes and black self-hatred, King continuously reminded black audiences that winning meaningful improvements required strong alliances with poor whites, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans.
King thought problems of race and economic deprivation should be tackled together.
King thought problems of race and economic deprivation should be tackled together, as part of a single movement. He did not view civil rights organizations as especially precious, and he repeatedly told leaders of the AFL-CIO that he would willingly switch from being a civil rights leader to building a broad multiracial social-democratic movement that would fight for the dignity and rights of all people. To enable such a movement, King pleaded with the union organization to end racial segregation within its ranks.
Tragically, following King’s assassination, most black political leaders were too fearful to follow his example. They retreated from building a multiracial movement for full employment. By the early 1970s, most accepted affirmative action—a far less costly strategy than full employment, created by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to quell urban rioting and appease elites—rather than befriending and collaborating with other minority groups and poor whites in the service of transforming society.
Organized labor, with a few notable exceptions, never understood King.
There were certainly gains from affirmative action, such as higher levels of admission to elite colleges that mainly benefited the black upper middle class. But the gains came at the expense of King’s larger goals and were exploited by the right wing to hurt lower-class blacks. While eighteen of the twenty largest cities in the United States are majority non-white, and include healthy numbers of left-leaning white people, many of these cities are led by economically conservative mayors. Affirmative action did create a measure of progress for a handful of blacks, other non-whites, and women, yet conservatives responded by cultivating a reservoir of white, especially white-male, racial resentment. Ever since blacks limited their demands to affirmative action, and funding small improvements in black communities, the message spun to poor whites has been that blacks don’t care about their suffering and this has been used to block multiracial solidarity and progressive social reform. Although President Obama regained the White House in 2012, he decisively lost the white vote, women included. Much as King anticipated, the last four decades have given rise to more blacks in high political and corporate offices, even the presidency, but also created deep racial divisions among poor and working people. Such disunity has undermined the political leverage of the lower classes and yielded power to elites. As a result, while the black community and poor people have become even poorer, corporate profits have skyrocketed, the wealthiest households have seen huge gains, and the ambitions of the Obama Administration have been sharply limited.
Some progressives, desperate for signs of hope, look to the labor movement. King believed it was imperative to redesign the economy to protect workers and sought an alliance with labor leaders. He told the national AFL-CIO convention in 1961:
In the next ten to twenty years, automation will grind jobs to dust as it grinds out unbelievable volumes of production. This period is made to order for those who would seek to drive labor into impotency. . . . To find a great design to solve a grave problem, labor will have to intervene in the political life of the nation to chart a course which distributes the abundance to all instead of concentrating it among a few. The strength to carry through such a program requires that labor know its friends and collaborate as a friend.
King believed that the labor movement, like civil rights organizations, should strive to redesign the economy, eliminate racial discrimination, and destroy the war machine. Not just “union recognition,” but “human recognition,” should be organized labor’s purpose. He argued that the labor movement could not survive without earnestly taking up the fight against poverty in urban ghettos, telling the Illinois AFL-CIO in 1965, “Where there are millions of poor, organized labor cannot really be secure.”
But organized labor, with a few notable exceptions, never understood King. Even to this day, most labor leaders reject his message of linking jobs and economic rights to human rights, racial justice, and peace. At best, they treat other movements as tactical allies sometimes useful for building trade unions. Rather than fighting racial oppression, labor has focused narrowly on maintaining its traditional benefits. Organized labor has never opposed high minority unemployment and mass incarceration with the same vigor they bring to their fights against corporate power and union busting. Unions have never grasped the link between class and race that W.E.B. Du Bois pointedly emphasized thirty years before King: that slavery and segregation were fundamentally labor issues, and American capitalism cannot be made to work for all without fighting racism and class oppression together. Frederick Douglass made the same point a half century before Du Bois.
The estrangement from race and class concerns has damaged the labor movement.
The estrangement from race and class concerns has damaged the labor movement in two ways. First, minorities, who in a generation will be a majority of the population, no longer see unions as central to their progress—potentially a fatal blow to unions. Second, at a time when the vast majority of all Americans believe that the system is rigged to benefit the rich, unions’ constant infighting and preoccupation with their own survival have constrained their ability to lead on issues vital to poor and working people: developing a fair economy, where the rich do not reap the gains from workers’ productivity, while workers’ incomes stagnate or fall; ending perpetual war and excessive military spending; reversing environmental degradation and the growing likelihood of ecological catastrophe; immigrant rights; and educational collapse. Unions are doing little to build a movement ethics of humility and sacrifice, and instead squabble amongst themselves over ‘jurisdictions.’ In this way, they are much like non-profit community organizations, which seldom cooperate and compete with each other for limited foundation funding. This fighting over money and prestige will never lead to movements of scale that can create major economic change.
Since King’s time, organizers have grown more timid politically and focused too much on their narrow agendas and personal empires. The result has been a lengthy roster of small and divided movements. King, by contrast, was neither timid nor parochial, and because of that he won the trust of millions and became a world leader. He remains an inspirational figure for our era. We can still follow his path.
J. Phillip Thompson is Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. His most recent book is Double Trouble: Black Mayors, Black Communities, and the Call for a Deep Democracy.
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