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A Look at MLK: The Impact, The Promise

“I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic… [Capitalism] started out with a noble and high motive… but like most human systems, it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King in a letter to his wife, Coretta Scott King, on July 18, 1952.

Despite being memorialized as the pacifist civil rights leader who tirelessly led the fight for voting rights and racial equity, Dr. King’s activism also included pro-socialist ideologies aiming to provide equality for all walks of life, as expressed above.

Though frequently overlooked, King’s activism included speaking publicly against the American capitalist system both in his community and in the ear of the federal government, particularly toward the end of his life. In a speech given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) on August 16, 1967, in Atlanta, King posed a series of broad questions aimed to assess the validity and success of a capitalist system.

“And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 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…”

The system Dr. King so openly detested, capitalism, is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

By definition, this creates a clear delineation between those who have much and those who have nothing. For those who “have,” capitalism has proven to be a success by providing opportunities to accumulate wealth, education, and affluence. However, the juxtaposition of such a comfortable lifestyle comes at the cost of experiencing systemic failures such as systemic exploitation, alienation, and oppression—all of which can (and do) indiscriminately touch the lives of the vast majority of Americans.

This broad stroke of plotted misfortune did not escape King who recognized races and creeds of all backgrounds as victims of poverty—and more importantly victims of a slow-to-act government. In a 1967 speech delivered in King’s native Atlanta, he reiterated the wide reach of the moral dilemma that is poverty.

“The second evil that I want to deal with is the evil of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it spreads its nagging prehensile tentacles into cities and hamlets and villages all over our nation. Some 40 million of our brothers and sisters are poverty-stricken, unable to gain the basic necessities of life.

And so often we allow them to become invisible because our society’s so affluent that we don’t see the poor. Some of them are Mexican Americans. Some of them are Indians. Some are Puerto Ricans. Some are Appalachian whites. The vast majority are Negroes in proportion to their size in the population …

Now there is nothing new about poverty. It’s been with us for years and centuries. What is new at this point, though, is that we now have the resources, we now have the skills, we now have the techniques to get rid of poverty. And the question is whether our nation has the will …”

Today, the fight for widespread, sustainable economic prosperity is continued, especially in light of the economic turmoil caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020 Census reported 37.2 million people in poverty, approximately 3.3 million more than in 2019 with the official poverty rate increasing to 11.4 percent in 2020, compared to 10.5 percent in 2019— the first increase in the poverty rates after five years of steadily declining. The increased rates of poverty affected nearly every recorded demographic, including race, and gender seeing an increased rate from only one year prior.

Additionally, the reported median household income saw significant declines for the first time since 2011. In 2020, the median household income ($67,521) saw a 2.9 percent decrease from 2019’s median of $69,560.

The repercussions of the economic woes transcended just numbers on paper. As part of their COVID-19 reporting, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has used real-time data to track the current economic impacts on food sourcing, housing, and employment hardships as recent as November 2021 (at the time of reporting).

Nine percent of American adults, nearly 20 million, reported their household did not have enough to eat in a seven-day period with 82 percent citing their inability to “afford more food” as the reason why.

One in six adult renters across the country, 16 percent or 12 million, faced difficulty in paying rent throughout the pandemic. This statistic disproportionately impacted Black renters with 28 percent reporting that they were not caught up on rent through the course of the pandemic.

While community aid came to the rescue for many of those in need, the limited assistance directly addressing prolonged critical needs emphasized the lack of urgency on behalf of the federal government, something King staunchly criticized.

King believed the solutions to the evident class warfare would be found in distributing wealth in the form of public welfare and social goods: jobs with a living wage, stable income, access to land and capital for the poor and minorities, ability to impact government.

These same beliefs and King’s mantle are upheld by the modern iteration of King’s Poor People’s Campaign, the last project King began to orchestrate before his death in 1968.

Operating under a similar moniker called the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the current advocacy self-proclaims to pick up where the late civil rights leader left off. It operates under 14 principles “to confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.”

Their mission continues, adding, “we understand that as a nation we are at a critical juncture, that we need a movement that will shift the moral narrative, impact policies and elections at every level of government, and build lasting power for poor and impacted people.”

Reverend William Barber II serves as a co-chair and spokesman on behalf of the organization, as well as the president of Repairers of the Breach, a non-profit seeking “to build a moral agenda rooted in a framework that uplifts our deepest moral and constitutional values to redeem the heart and soul of our country.”

Having spoken at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, addressed the 5th UNI Global Union World Conference, and delivered the homily for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the 59th Inaugural Prayer Service, the reverend has proven his ability to carry on such a heavy burden.

Yet more importantly, much like the late Dr. King, Reverend Barber largely advocates on behalf of the lay people, despite his laundry list of accolades and honors, most recently, speaking out in support of West Virginian protesters who held a picket line protest against Senator Joe Manchin’s lack of support for voting rights protections and the Build Back Better Act, which aims to provide Americans with improved social policies.

The ongoing fight for economic prosperity for Americans of every creed and walk of life proves to be an uphill battle even today, as evidenced by Barber’s desire to continue the legacy of the Poor People’s Campaign more than five decades later.

However, Dr. King spoke of the very issue of fatigue in the face of a seemingly endless struggle in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos to Community (1967), the final book penned before his untimely demise.

“First, the line of progress is never straight. For a period, a movement may follow a straight line and then it encounters obstacles and the path bends. It is like curving around a mountain when you are approaching a city. Often if feels as though you were moving backward, and you lose sight of your goal: but, in fact, you are moving ahead, and soon you will see the city again, closer by,” King wrote.

Despite the 15-year gap between his letter to Coretta Scott King and publishing some of his final thoughts on the matter in his final book, King’s ideologies only manifested in a louder outcry against a failed system.

Fifty-four years after his untimely death ended a life of activism, America has yet to acknowledge, reconcile, or overcome the core issues identified by King that keep millions of Americans under the heavy burden of economic disparities. Though the light at the end of the tunnel is far from in view, recognizing the efforts put forth by King is necessary to continue honoring his legacy.

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