MLK Was a Radical Who Hated Not Only Racial Subordination But Class Exploitation

Sylvie Laurent

Throughout his adult life, Martin Luther King Jr believed in striking down not only racial apartheid but class exploitation. That twin commitment was embodied in his final effort: the often-forgotten Poor People’s Campaign.

Martin Luther King Jr. (RV1864 / flickr)

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting a strike by municipal sanitation workers when he was shot and killed. While menial sanitation work was performed exclusively by African American men in Memphis, King’s support for the strike was about more than just race. A longtime student of progressive political scientists, sociologists, and economists, King saw Memphis as “a necessary stepping stone to Washington,” in the words of a colleague from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization he had founded to strengthen the civil rights movement.

In less than three weeks, multiracial caravans of poor people from all over the United States were set to converge on Washington, DC, to demand the federal government directly provide, or underwrite, universal access to the necessities of a dignified life, including work, housing, education, and health care. Following King’s assassination, the Poor People’s Campaign, as it was known, did occupy the National Mall and other strategic targets, such as federal agencies, for nearly two months. But in the end, the tenuous coalition of liberals and radicals that King had assembled could not hold up against state repression, including infiltration by the FBI.

The Poor People’s Campaign was ultimately cleared by tear gas and bulldozers, and its memory was relegated to an unfortunate afterword in the whitewashed history of the civil rights movement. Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Sylvie Laurent, author of King and the Other America: The Poor People’s Campaign and the Quest for Economic Equality, about the so-called second phase of the civil rights movement, King’s radical views on issues like automation and universal basic income, and how the Poor People’s Campaign fit into King’s politics of collective liberation. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.


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Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign is sometimes described as the “second phase” of the civil rights movement. Is that a fair characterization?

SL

I am not completely on board with the “first versus second phase” framing of the civil rights movement. Not only does it obscure a long movement of black liberation, which has deep ties to unionism, Marxism, and socialism in the United States, but it feeds into a narrative whereby the first phase, aimed at formal equality and civil rights, was divorced from black American workers’ predicament.

King, the living metaphor of the movement, has been painted as having grown embittered and radicalized after 1966 (the so-called second phase), and his stronger commitment to critiquing capitalism has consequently been discounted. In fact, he was moving strategically. He had expressed deep concerns over economic exploitation, the ravages of capitalism, and the concentration of wealth since his early twenties. The civil-rights-centered agenda that dominated prior to 1964 had always been suffused with class-based and labor-related demands. But the legal protection of black lives and the reclaiming of black legal rights were a prerequisite to the broad restructuring of society necessary for the full emancipation of the worker and the poor.

Martin Luther King Jr in 1964. (Noord-Hollands Archief / Fotoburo de Boer)

Not only did King constantly point at the economic injustices that underpinned the racial inequality of America and support progressive labor unions, but he frequently drew analogies between the poverty-stricken white man who lost his job to the black exploited worker. Uniting the poor for the purpose of universal emancipation had been on his mind all along.

Reading the speeches he gave to unions in the early 1960s, we grasp how he mobilized the idea of freedom expansively, so that economic security and basic human rights would be critical components of the freedom struggle, but also the ground upon which he could build a solidaristic movement with nonblack, nonreligious, and non-male-centered groups. That is what he achieved with the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

The Poor People’s Campaign [PPC] was spearheaded by the welfare rights movement, led mostly by black women. They reshaped King’s understanding of welfare, economic rights, and dignity. Their articulation of race, class, gender, and agency was unprecedented.

Their plan, co-orchestrated with King, consisted of a spectacular occupation of the National Mall by poor people coming from every part of the country — a pan-racial coalition of the dispossessed and exploited that was as bold as it was substantial. The PPC pushed for a dramatic pivot toward social democracy through a massive redistribution of wealth and the constitutionalization of the right to dignity. Here are the words King used in 1967 to announce his Poor People’s Campaign:

We are still not free . . . And you know why we aren’t free? Because we are poor. Now, we are tired of being on the bottom, we are tired of being exploited . . . And as a result of being tired, we are going to Washington, DC . . . in order to say to this nation that you must provide us with jobs or income . . . And for sixty or ninety days, this nation will not be able to ignore or overlook the poor. And we are going to plague Congress, and we are going to plague the government, until they will do something.

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Through the Poor People’s Campaign, King addressed issues and proposed solutions that seem radical even today, such as a universal basic income. What was his perspective on a UBI?

SL

He was prescient that automation was destroying jobs and called it a “catastrophe,” especially as most of these vanishing jobs were the low-skilled ones primarily occupied by black workers. Reading John Kenneth Galbraith, he reasoned that a universal basic income would lift people out of poverty if coupled with the massive creation of public jobs, low-income housing, education, and health-related infrastructures, as well as an increase in the minimum wage.

But the main argument was not so much about the toolkit as it was about the advent of a true social democracy. All these policies would have to be prioritized by law. The core demand of the campaign was the passing of a “Second Bill of Rights for the Dispossessed.” Imposing antipoverty as a constitutional commitment would hold the state accountable for ensuring that everyone was able to obtain access to levels of nutrition, shelter, education, and economic security required for a minimally dignified human life. But dignity also entailed that cultural identities be recognized as worthy. They were never meant to be subsumed by a colorblind scheme.

Memphis sanitation workers on strike in 1968.

Marching with the sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, King explicitly linked the value of human dignity to the material conditions necessary to enable people to live a decent life. “For the person who picks up our garbage is,” he said, “as significant as the physician. For if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”

Racial domination and economic exploitation ought to be uprooted altogether. The purpose of the campaign was to build a democracy devoted to eradicating poverty and the disempowerment of the poor, and to make dignity an inalienable right.

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What strategy did the Poor People’s Campaign use to try to achieve its goals? How much of this was thwarted by King’s assassination?

SL

King did not live to see his ultimate crusade materialize. He died on April 4, weeks before the launching of the campaign. Ralph Abernathy picked up the torch and carried the campaign forward. In the short term, King’s death boosted the effort, with people seeing the campaign as a way to keep the leader alive. But soon after, his absence felt insurmountable.

For more than a month, thousands of poor people of all races poured into the capital, by foot, train, or on mule wagons, camping out on the National Mall in a shantytown they named “Resurrection City.” They occupied the space for six weeks and attempted to get the powers that be to take notice.

Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, Walter Fauntroy, Joseph Lowery, and Jesse Jackson strived to carry on their missing leader’s grand scheme. Although not as confrontational as initially planned, the protesters took disruptive actions, hoping to seize the momentum of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty to break into the national consciousness. Several delegations made daily visits to departments and agencies, be they to demand the protection of Native American fishing rights, the removal of humiliating welfare requirements, or the expansion of food stamp programs.

The main rally of the campaign, which was held on “Solidarity Day” (June 19, 1968), managed to draw fifty thousand people to Washington, DC, with demands to combat runaway inequality and, in the words used by Coretta Scott King that day, “the violence of poverty.”

The effort to dramatize the plight of poor people in America was successful, but the country would not and could not hear their call for an inclusive, multiracial, social democracy. The camp was wiped out in June 1968.

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Although it was arguably King’s most ambitious project, the Poor People’s Campaign has been largely left out of the popular understanding of his life and work. Why do you think that is?

SL

There are several reasons for such obliviousness, beginning with the blinding impact of King’s death and the subsequent revolts that inflamed the country. America seemed at war with itself, both at home and abroad, and protesters were cast as subversives, if not as a lumpen to be tamed. The criminalization of the poor was already picking up steam, and the PPC — which also had to deal with its own internal tensions — had lost its frail political capital.

But I would argue that the belittling of the Poor People’s Campaign stems from its unfitness with respect to the convenient narratives which have come to prevail: a much-romanticized rendering of the narrow 1955 to 1965 era, when the struggle was purportedly steady, efficient, and consensual — versus the supposedly ill-timed, antagonizing, and abrasive radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which alienated well-intended white liberals and plunged the country into racial divisiveness. The disruptive politics of the Poor People’s Campaign was framed, to use historian Thomas Sugrue’s formulation, as “a spoiler in an otherwise uplifting story of racial redemption.”

King’s intent was for the campaign to challenge a flawed political economy, which had thrived on a racially divided working class, unemployed, underemployed, and super-exploited. The insurgency of the American poor that he called for and his critique of capitalism and inequality were unsettling. They did not fit the script of racial progress. The erasure of the campaign speaks to a national inability to reckon with its unresolved questions with regard to race, class, oppression, and exploitation.

Besides, mainline civil rights leaders, including prominent figures within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were uneasy with the campaign, as they had been with King’s antiwar sentiments. What’s more, while designing the campaign, King refused to dismiss the more militant and nationalistic currents of the movement. That he mobilized the language of the class struggle and reached out to Black Power youth and Chicano and welfare activists estranged him from many of his friends and supporters. Some of them were quick to dismiss the campaign as a “failure,” a “disaster,” a “tragic mistake” — as though rescuing it from the conservative backlash that was taking over in 1968 and could taint the achievement that preceded it.

Arguably, the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 obtained few of the sweeping demands it had pushed for. But it was an extraordinary performative exercise of radical democracy and an unprecedented account of interracial coalition among the poor.

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What are the lessons that organizers today should take away from the Poor People’s Campaign?

SL

First off, let me say that what Reverend William Barber II is doing today — reviving the campaign and giving it new historical relevance — is phenomenal.

The main takeaway from King’s final campaign is probably that the race-versus-class debate is pointless and counterproductive. He famously wrote:

One unfortunate thing about Black Power is that it gives priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike. In this context a slogan “Power for Poor People” would be much more appropriate than the slogan “Black Power.”

But he never meant that the struggle ought to be color-blind. The Poor People’s Campaign is the perfect example of a targeted universalism that takes into consideration the specific grievances of each group within a collective, egalitarian framework. The white Appalachians who settled alongside blacks and Latinos in Washington were perhaps prejudiced. But through collective action, the construction of a common linkedness, and a premium placed on economic and cultural dignity, something like solidarity prevailed.

The arbitrary domination of workers, the humiliation of women on welfare, the marginalization of migrants, and the dehumanization of black people could be addressed through an emphasis on economic dignity. However, the latter is not a one-size-fits-all universalism — the real question is how to invent a liberatory politics around both race and class that shows respect for difference while dramatizing a common condition.