Remembering what else Martin Luther King Jr. fought for

Martin Luther King Jr giving his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, DC, 1963. Wikimedia Commons

Today, we celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and, mostly, his leadership for civil rights and racial equity in America. King would have been 87 years old today.

What tends to get short shrift every year on MLK Jr day – yet may resonate more these days – is that King was as much an anti-poverty advocate and economic reformer as he was a civil rights advocate. Besides fighting for the basic rights of minorities, for blacks especially, King was a critic of capitalism, of the structural maldistribution of power and wealth – and the use of our massive military to advance American corporate interests.

At his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize talk, King identified what he believed were the world’s three leading evils: Racial injustice, war and global poverty:

“Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life?…. The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty…. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich.”

From the King archives, in an earlier letter he wrote to his then-girlfriend (and eventual wife) Coretta Scott, he spoke of how capitalism has broken down and become “a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes….” This led to the Poor People’s Campaign – which was perhaps why Edgar J. Hoover’s FBI considered him a communist threat, even though King despised communism as much as he did the excesses of capitalism. King actually sounds a bit like Bernie Sanders, or vice versa.

Before King could gain much momentum for his anti-poverty campaign, he was shot and killed. And despite some progress made against extreme poverty worldwide (most of it due to China’s economic rise, actually), income inequality and wealth concentration is today arguably even more pronounced than it was in King’s day. See this new report from Oxfam – 62 super-rich people hold the same amount of wealth as half the planet’s population – and the graphic below showing the gap between rich and poor just for the US.

Graphic from Congressional Budget Office showing widening gap between rich and poor in US, through 2007 (Note: It's gotten worse since then)

Graphic from Congressional Budget Office showing widening gap between rich and poor in US, through 2007 (Note: It’s gotten worse since then)

It’s been more than half a century since MLK Jr called for the abolition of poverty, for making it as repulsive and intolerable as slavery or other barbaric human practices of yore:

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

Ending poverty today is still just a dream, but some dreams do come true – if we do a bit more than just dream.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Kathy Barker

    Actually, King did not believe (or say in the letter) that capitalism had broken down. He did not thing capitalism was working, and that a socialist system would be a better system to achieve equality. I am not mincing words here. Believing in capitalism and trying to reduce poverty are completely contradictory.