The political economics of Dr. King’s legacy
The Martin Luther King holiday is 25 years old this month. Not bad for a true product of American democracy at its ugliest and its best.
Remembering the loud, raucous, and sometimes racially vicious political war fought to get the holiday established, one is doubly honored to watch one of Dr. King’s movement progeny work his POTUS magic through a relentlessly dangerous minefield of negativity.
During the struggle to establish the holiday, there was intense conservative filibustering. Both the “respectable bigotry” of the John Birch Society and the “po’ white trash” physicality of the KKK engaged in local and state intimidation. There were legal assaults and judicial ambushes, as well as old-fashioned massive marches, both of protest and support. They were all testimony to the fact that the fight over the MLK holiday was another front in the continuing cultural war, with one side trying to impose a permanent inferiority and a stay-in-your-place condition on Black folk, while the other side fought (and fights) to reclaim and maintain racial dignity and self-respect.
It is instructive, in these present 21st-century days of continuing economic distress for a significant proportion of the African American population, to also remember that Dr. King’s legacy was multidimensional, and cannot be deconstructed to a singular speech, no matter how brilliant it was. As part of the political economics of the Civil Rights Movement’s stride forward, Dr. King gave us eloquently articulated and effectively organized inspiration in the economic realm, and it deserves more research, recognition and pride of place in Dr. King’s legacy.
As we remember, Dr. King was in Memphis on the day of his death to continue helping the Black Sanitation Workers, an AFSCME labor union affiliate, which was on strike for better wages, improved health benefits and non-discriminatory treatment on the job. He had been there several days, even though the struggle there was seen as a sideline detour by most of his staff members on the road to the much larger and upcoming Poor Peoples’ Campaign in Washington, D.C. In fact, for many in the movement, Dr. King’s involvement in an economic labor dispute did not fit the profile they had come to expect. However, to those paying close attention, it was pure Dr. King.
The sanitation workers needed him there, they asked for his help, and although the effort was not good for his reputation, he went anyway and stayed in spite of things going very badly. He insisted that the city deal fairly with the workers and grant them the economic relief they sought and deserved.
Additionally, regarding the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, shortly before he died, Dr. King said, “We call our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income because we feel that the economic question is the most crucial that Black people and poor people generally, are confronting.” In particular, Dr. King was an advocate of continental African-Negro American economic linkages, he strongly supported increased employment opportunities and advancement, and he consistently presented a case for Black self-sufficiency and self-help.
In March 1957, for example, Dr. King, his wife and family traveled to Ghana, West Africa. At first glance, one would have assumed this to be a vacation of sorts. After all, Dr. King had just helped to secure the tremendous victory of Black Montgomery citizens in the lengthy boycott of the city’s bus company. Dr. King was on the precipice of co-organizing the seminal civil rights group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as one of the significant consequences of that successful boycott. So, the trip to Ghana, on the surface, looked like a needed respite from the battlefront.
In reality, the whirlwind tour of Ghana, in part to participate in the momentous celebration of the declaration of its independence from Great Britain—Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) was the first sub-Saharan African country to accomplish political, if not economic, independence from a European colonial power—was scheduled and occasioned as a business trip. (Ironically, Dr. King met Vice President Richard Nixon, who was also in Ghana for this first independence day. He briefly discussed with him the purpose and importance of the Civil Rights Movement then getting under way. Dr. King had not been able to speak to Mr. Nixon on American soil.) Dr. King spoke at length with Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah about what this new development in African history meant, and about how Blacks who were now thousands of miles apart could help each other, politically, economically and culturally. He said, “It was my hope that even people from America would go to Africa as immigrants. American Negroes could lend their technical assistance to a growing new nation… Nkrumah made it very clear to me that he would welcome any (Negro) persons coming there as immigrants.” Further, according to his autobiography, Dr. King remained interested in, advocated, and tried to maintain regular updates on the evolution of such continental-diasporan ties. In that regard, Dr. King was a true Pan-Africanist.
This viewpoint segued right into his Atlanta background, which had emphasized the continuing need for Black folk—Negroes—to stand up on their own in the world and earn the national and global respect that they so richly deserved. His father, Daddy King, and his grandfather, another minister, had taught Dr. King that it was through thrift, hard work, self-discipline, a relentless commitment to educational advancement, familial stability and self-improvement that Black folk could and would rise from poverty and become outstanding participatory citizens. This ethos was a guiding principle to Dr. King throughout his private and public life, even though during the last several years of that life he also strongly advocated guaranteed government-provided jobs for all Blacks who wanted to work as an approach to jump-start the self-help project. Sprinkled throughout Dr. King’s many speeches are phrases like “Let’s live within our means. Save our money and invest it in meaningful ends,” and “…Negroes must develop the habits of thrift and techniques of wise investment (so that) the Negro will be doing his share to grapple with his problem of economic deprivation.”
Dr. King wrestled with the very concept of government welfare for Blacks, and theorized about the creation of a Black underclass in America that had been consistently encouraged not to work or to develop self-sustaining habits. (That class would become self-destructive, regularly perpetuate criminality and gang violence, and prey on and disrespect Black women. Sounds like he got it about right.)
Developing a proud, stand-on-your-own-two-feet working class was what Dr. King advocated the most relentlessly for Black folk in America. Even in arguing for massive federal government intervention, including a guaranteed income as part of his economic bill of rights proposal, to solve “the Negro problem,” it was still about getting to the point of self-help. In a 1967 speech, he said, “The ultimate way to diminish our problems of crime, family disorganization, illegitimacy and so forth will have to be found through a government program to help the frustrated Negro male find his true masculinity by placing him on his own two economic feet.”
Dr. King’s proposal for the creation of a Public Service Job Assurance project to address the growing alienation of Black and White youth who were mired in hard-core unemployment situations still stands as a magnificent testament to his economic and political vision for modern America. “We must develop a federal program of public works, retraining, and jobs for all—so that none, White or Black, will have cause to feel threatened.”
In essence, Dr. King, justifiably famous as the nonviolent crusader and civil rights advocate, was indeed much, much more. He was an economic theorist and strategist with plans, proposals and even dreams to free Black folk of economic dependency and bondage. It is fascinating to contemplate what he would say now if he were here to assess the current economic conditions of African Americans. And in this time of economic turmoil for too many of us, re-looking at his economic and Pan African message can provide more hope and inspiration for us to carry on through to higher ground.
Professor David L. Horne
, is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or Non Governmental Organization (NGO). It is the step-parent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.