Focus is on racism, but King also spoke of ills of capitalism and militarism
‘America loves its prophets, but prophets who cannot trouble us any more.’
— The Rev. William Barber, founder, The Poor People’s Campaign
By Herbert Rothschild
When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, the most pressing obstacle to racial justice was legally mandated segregation in the South and legally tolerated segregation elsewhere in the country. That is no longer the case. It wasn’t even the case by 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. “I have a dream” is a magnificent speech, but I think it has become ensconced in observances of MLK Day because it is now safe to hear — safe for us and especially safe for our school children.
By 1968, racial discrimination in education, employment, housing and public accommodations had been outlawed. And Blacks had won access to the ballot, which was a gamechanger throughout the South. But while he foresaw an end to his life, Dr. King foresaw no end to the struggle. He had come to Memphis to promote economic justice for the city’s sanitation workers. And the year before, he had gone to Riverside Church in New York City to decry the enormous violence and crippling cost of the war in Vietnam.
There is still racial discrimination in the U.S., but the sacrifices of Dr. King and so many others were not in vain. The paranoia called “white replacement” hasn’t arisen because so little has changed but rather because so much has changed. Can we say the same about economic injustice and militarism?
Let’s hear some words of Dr. King we don’t hear on the national holiday named for him: “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.” Today the buying power of the federal minimum wage is 40% less than it was in 1968. And let’s hear some more of his words. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” In fiscal year 1968 U.S. military spending was $84 billion ($731 billion 2022 dollars); in fiscal year 2023 it will be $858 billion.
Do we want to hear those words? Certainly corporate America doesn’t want to hear them. It wants to hear “I have a dream.” By and large corporate America is committed to hiring and promoting women and people of color. That’s because not many years after large companies were being pressured to do so, they discovered that there was an immense untapped pool of labor — often highly skilled labor — available to them just when the proportion of white males in the U.S. work force was declining. Diversity is good for their bottom line.
And that’s good for all of us. Corporate self-interest is a bulwark — hopefully, an effective bulwark — against the complete takeover of the Republican Party by White nationalists and homophobes. But it’s also an obstacle to the structural changes that Dr. King knew were required before racism could be eradicated.
Life in our urban ghettoes can’t be transformed by a resolve to judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Growing up in such circumstances shapes character, rarely for the better. And is it cause for self-congratulation that our military doesn’t discriminate against people of color as long as they can be sent abroad to kill people with skins no whiter than theirs? The structures of racism reveal themselves only when we deconstruct our economy and foreign policy.
Interviewed in The Guardian on January 16, the Rev. William Barber said, “It often saddens me when I go to King events, how many people want to have a commemoration, not a re-engagement.” And in January 2021, right after that year’s MLK Day, Michael Tubbs, founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, expressed similar discontent when he spoke with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly: “I think anyone who studies Dr. King realizes that he saw that racial justice and economic justice were intertwined. And that’s why he spoke so often about the triple evils of our society, which is unfettered capitalism, excessive militarism and racism. And the work that he was doing was really about eradicating our society of those three things so that we live in a community that elevates the basic human dignity of all people.”
In Washington on that day in 1963, King said, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” It was not just the “Whites only” signs that stripped Black children of their selfhood and robbed them of the dignity. And it isn’t only Black children whom our culture strips of their selfhood and robs of their dignity. Dr. King called us to comprehensive transformation. Let’s sound that call.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at email@example.com.