Historians have written so many books about Martin Luther King, Jr. that it might seem there is little left to say about the man or the American civil rights movement many think he personified. Thomas F. Jackson’s new book should dispel that impression. More than any other historian of the movement, Jackson takes the civil rights leader’s ideas seriously. The author, a former researcher and consulting editor of the King Papers Project at Stanford University, has steeped himself in his subject’s secular thought and writing. He casts King as arguably the most important, and certainly the most eloquent, American political economist of the 20th century.
During King’s public life, black unemployment figures hovered at around 20 percent-always at least double the figure for whites-even as the country experienced unprecedented economic growth. King recognized early on that without meaningful economic reform for blacks in the cities, civil and voting rights reforms would have little meaning, and he often repeated his belief that America needed a “radical redistribution of political and economic power.” While the mainstream press was reporting what King had to say about desegregation and the right to vote, King had more ambitious goals. He worked to bind the agendas of labor and civil rights organizations, called for a guaranteed annual income for all Americans, lobbied for massive public works programs to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and spur employment, and demanded an end to American militarism.
Jackson describes King as a democratic socialist-one who believes that economic and political power should be distributed equitably among all the people of a polity. From his teens, when King wrote of his “anti-capitalist feelings,” throughout his college, graduate school, and seminary years, and finally into his life as a public figure, his beliefs were strikingly consistent. (Pastor King was thrust onto the national scene during the Montgomery bus boycott at the age of 26; he became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize at 35 and was assassinated at 39.) To gain a wider audience, King resisted labeling his prescription for what ailed America. “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism,” Jackson quotes him as saying, “but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” Nonetheless, King emerges from this portrait as a democratic socialist, first, last, and always, who also happened to be a civil rights leader. For King, the right to vote was no more or less essential than the right to a job and a decent place to live. Human beings had a natural claim to all of them.
King’s message was constant even as it was largely ignored by the news media. We have lost sight, for instance, of the fact that the full name of the spectacle that took place in the nation’s capital on that summer day in 1963, when King delivered his most famous speech, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march focused the nation’s attention on the need for federal legislation to protect the civil and voting rights of its black citizens. The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which sent federal registrars into local jurisdictions in the South with a history of denying blacks the right to vote. President Lyndon Johnson spent a lot of political capital to get those bills through Congress, and most liberal and moderate white Americans thought that, with the bills’ signing, the hard work of civil rights reform was over-though the legislation did nothing to address economic inequalities.
A majority of white Americans certainly did not appreciate the “nonviolent theater” King employed in the streets of the South to force change. Jackson cites damning Gallup poll numbers: In June 1963, when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that King headed was in the midst of the Birmingham campaign that brought images of Bull Connor’s police dogs into Americans’ living rooms, 60 percent of all Americans thought the public demonstrations with which King was by then synonymous “hurt the Negro’s cause” more than they helped it. By May 1964, that percentage had risen to 74 percent. By October 1966, following the SCLC’s nonviolent direct actions in Selma and Chicago, it reached 85 percent. “[E]ven liberal whites,” Jackson notes, “interpreted nonviolent protest as a prelude to violence, rather than its politically efficient alternative.”
It was at this point, in the mid-1960s, that King began losing faith in liberalism and coalition politics, and for good reason. He tried in 1966, through his involvement with the Chicago Freedom Movement, to raise awareness of the institutional racism, systemic poverty, and anti-democratic political regimes urban blacks faced. But he failed to convince white Americans of the need for federal fair-housing legislation and urban job programs. Non-Southern whites, it turned out, did not appreciate King telling them that racism was a deep-seated national, not just regional, problem. Especially recalcitrant, King found to his everlasting disappointment, were Northern working-class whites and their labor unions. For King, the ultimate dilemma was not a particularly Southern brand of white supremacy or even that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white-separate and unequal,” as the report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders warned. The real problem was the development of “two Americas, one rich and one poor.”
King welcomed Johnson’s War on Poverty, which the president introduced with great rhetorical flair in 1964, but recognized its financial and moral bankruptcy. King understood budgeting realpolitik as well as anyone, and saw that the real enemy of the War on Poverty would be war, not poverty. King famously rose to the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Baptist Church in 1967 to denounce the U.S. adventure in Vietnam and break ties with Johnson for good. The U.S. government, he charged at Riverside, was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” By then, the government spent more in a month in Southeast Asia than it did in a year to fight poverty in the U.S. The U.S. paid out, on average, $500,000 a year to kill a North Vietnamese soldier and $53 to help an American out of poverty. “And half of that is spent for the salaries of [bureaucrats] who are not poor,” King complained.
Some King biographers have treated the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that King joined in the spring of 1968 as something like a side project, a campaign that he and the SCLC got roped into more or less unintentionally. In Jackson’s telling, King’s entire public life led to Memphis. Here King found “a concrete expression of a militant, insurgent, black-labor alliance, organizing unorganized workers to win collective bargaining rights, dignity, and higher wages.” He was excited to lend his name and energies to the struggle.
At the same time, King and the SCLC were planning a new initiative that would culminate in Washington later that summer. “Let’s find something that is so possible, so achievable, so pure, so simple, that even the [white] backlash can’t do much to deny it,” he told his staff, “and yet something so nontoken and so basic to life that even the black nationalists can’t disagree with it.” That something would be a demand for guaranteed jobs or income, and Jackson is quick to point out that it was more radical than any of the plans offered by King’s black nationalist and black power critics. The SCLC would make the demand in the most dramatic way yet, by organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial coalition from around the country who would take up residence in a tent city on the National Mall and stay there until federal officials responded to their ultimatum. King knew it was a daring, even impossible, plan, in part because it involved confronting the “very [same] federal machine that has often come to our aid.” He embraced it for just that reason.
Following a long struggle, the city of Memphis did finally recognize the garbage workers’ right to collective bargaining, and the city workers eventually received pay increases and health benefits. But King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4 doomed the Poor People’s Campaign. The multiracial coalition King had envisioned did not materialize at Resurrection City in Washington, and the campaign dissolved later that summer.
King “bequeathed his radical vision to a nation that increasingly spurned him while alive and was all too eager to canonize him in death,” Jackson concludes. Indeed, King has become a man for all seasons in the memories of contemporary Americans. His vision has been so distorted by partisans in search of a usable past that in the 2006 elections, the National Black Republican Association (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin Republicans,” one wag called the group) ran radio ads asserting that “Dr. King was a Republican,” urging black Americans to vote GOP to further his legacy. The notion that King could have supported a political party that brought us the war of choice in Iraq and tax cuts for the rich at the expense of the poor is beyond ludicrous. But it says something about us as a people that we would even try to have the argument.
From Civil Rights to Human Rights rescues the historical King from these crazy debates. I cannot in good conscience recommend it as an easy or entirely enjoyable read, but I can promise that it will reward close study. The book was written for academics, but it deserves a large audience. If it finds that audience, it should help to reshape our collective understanding not only of King and the civil rights movement, but of the movements for peace and racial and economic justice that preceded King and continue today. Now that I think of it, maybe we should allow the members of the National Black Republican Association and their cohorts to think King was one of them. If he was, they’ve got some changing to do.
Like Jackson, I have a great and abiding hope that next January, and every January thereafter, instead of saluting the King we contemporary Americans have invented-the nonthreatening King, sanitized of class consciousness-we will remember the King who made us uncomfortable, who was willing to lead thousands of poor people into Washington to shut down the nation’s capital until our leaders found a way to distribute power and wealth more equitably. We will celebrate the King who despaired that we Americans “arrogantly feel that we have some divine messianic mission to police the whole world” and challenged us to be warriors for peace. It’s a tall order, but I hope it will happen. You might even say that I, too, have a dream.
Todd Moye teaches U.S. History at the University of North Texas in Denton.