April 4 is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Media outlets and publications everywhere are honoring the day with remembrances and articles about King’s legacy. Most are, of course, about MLK’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement and how he helped lead the movement for greater racial equality.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about the work King was starting to do when he was killed, which he never had the chance to finish: His work to bring attention to human rights and end poverty in America with The Poor People’s campaign. I was glad to see big articles in both Time Magazine and Smithsonian on the topic. In the wake of King’s death, activists tried to carry on his work, which was part of what led to passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. But I’ve been wondering what it would be like if King had been able to bring that work to fruition on a larger scale.
King had always been deeply committed to addressing poverty and gradually started doing more activism on the issue. When he was killed in Memphis, he was there for a third time to try to help striking black sanitation workers get better working conditions. He was also in the midst of planning a march on Washington for Americans living in poverty. Many people say that it was this work, along with his opposition to the Vietnam War, that caused him to lose financial backing and the support of President Johnson, and that ultimately led to his assassination.
A big part of the American public and government had finally gotten on board with desegregation. But King’s work on tackling the more complex issues of poverty, which disproportionately affected people of color, was a lot more threatening to the status quo. This was partly because it tapped into deep-seated prejudices, systemic racism, and classism—discrimination in housing, employment, wages, and health care..
Today, race and poverty are still intertwined. It’s something that’s getting talked about more, but still not enough. In 2016, white families had a median net worth of $171,000, compared with $17,600 for blacks and $20,700 for Hispanics. Meanwhile, white boys who grow up rich are likely to stay that way, while black boys raised in top-earning households are more likely to become poor.
White people are, of course, affected by poverty too, and most poor people in America are white. What we know is that poverty is an intergenerational phenomenon: if you are born poor, your children are most likely to be too, and onward for generations no matter your race.
So many people are not aware that King had envisioned a multi-racial coalition in the Poor People’s Movement. We know King was taken from us too early. The Poor People’s Campaign hit a major roadblock with the lack of his leadership. What we don’t know is what his leadership would have done to mobilize poor folks across race in this country, and how that momentum could have disrupted this system and built a better one from the people, for the people.
Instead of moving forward together across races and ethnicities, we’ve allowed some politicians to use racial differences to divide and exploit poor folks. White poor and working-class people have been told that their biggest problem is “the other”—that the reason they’re not able to move up is because of black and Hispanic folks. I also see that many poor people of color, in turn, aren’t exactly eager to unite against poverty with white poor people who see them as the cause of the problem, or the recipients of unfair advantage. With all the infighting, we don’t ever actually examine and confront the systems of political and economic power and privilege keeping many people poor and a few people wealthy.
I love the way King spoke to this issue in the last speech he gave, the night before his death, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop:
“You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.”
Today, there are organizations across the country working with the new Poor People’s Campaign to bring attention to and create solutions for poor people. Maybe if more of us paid attention to this issue, if we brought some of the less-talked-about parts of MLK’s legacy back into the light, we could dissolve the divides, end the “oppression olympics” that pit people of color (particularly African-Americans, Hispanic and Native Americans) and white people against each other, and tackle the huge wealth inequality that still plagues us, including the systemic racism that keeps so many people of color in poverty.
How? Here are just a few ideas:
1. By educating ourselves with research and information that dispels some of the myths about income equality—who it affects, what causes it, and how we can move forward. (For starters: Check out this resource list from Class Action and the video Decoded: 5 Poverty Myths Debunked.)
3. By listening to and respecting the leadership of poor and working-class people. Contribute to local, grassroots movements and organizations working for change that are led by poor people and may be under-resourced, and read and listen to the voices of poor people sharing their experiences—and help amplify their stories.
It’s up to us to join and support the people already working tirelessly to advance the movement Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his allies started. Ready?