A cornerstone of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight against inequity, poverty is an issue that crosses race, gender, and cultural lines, affecting people across the nation. Not solely an issue in America, Dr. King recognized that poverty pervaded the globe. Often, when speaking publicly and in his writings, Dr. King sought unity from other countries, stressing the need for all of us to fight poverty together.
Even in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, given on December 11, 1964, Dr. King spoke directly about the evils of racial injustice, war, and poverty. “This problem of poverty,” Dr. King says, “is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves.”
Dr. King went on to discuss the disparity of wealth in the United States – “the richest nation in the world” – and the juxtapositions of skyscrapers among the slums, jet planes soaring over the ghettos. This lecture defined the issues of poverty to a global audience:
The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. - The Quest for Peace and Justice, Nobel Lecture
In Dr. King’s point of view, poverty was a problem that was being addressed in entirely the wrong way. For instance, the United States government looked to different problems as a means to solving the issue of poverty. In the series of policy changes brought about in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” the government was dedicated to treating the symptoms that fed into poverty.
Dr. King viewed this approach as both indirect and impossible. Instead of trying to solve the deep problems with education, housing, and support for impoverished people, Dr. King said that we simply needed to fix poverty first.
In the 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination many things have changed for minorities in America; some for the better, and some for the worse. Despite gains in education and increased participation in the white-collar labor market (a 650% increase), African Americans still lag behind whites in income and are overrepresented in poverty. Poverty for African Americans in Shelby County is three times that of whites, and median income for African Americans has remained at about half that of whites through the decades. More troubling, the percent of African Americans who are institutionalized (criminal and otherwise) is now double that of institutionalized whites. Watch the forum and presentation of the Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK, How African Americans and the poor have fared in Memphis and Shelby County over the past 50 years with Dr. Elena Delavega, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Memphis.
A Plan To Eliminate Poverty
The plan for solving poverty was laid out in Dr. King’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, written in 1967. By establishing a guaranteed, middle-class income, the United States could tackle poverty head-on. Dr. King explained how Americans should receive a set income from the government each year, allowing them to have a livable amount of money. This money would allow those in poverty to invest back in their communities, purchasing goods, finding reasonable housing, and having the means to living a better life.
Dr. King’s crusade for economic justice went beyond writings and speeches, as he was working towards a larger, organized protest. The Poor People's Campaign, as it became known, was first announced by King in November of 1967, in partnership with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The Poor People’s Campaign was planned to be a march on Washington of around 2,000 people, speaking out against income inequity, lack of opportunity, and insufficient wages. As Dr. King said:
We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, 'We are here; we are poor; we don't have any money; you have made us this way … and we've come to stay until you do something about it.
The Fight Continues
While planning for the Poor People’s Campaign was underway, Dr. King was assassinated before the march took place. The march began on May 12, 1968, which was Mother’s Day, and was led by Coretta Scott King. The march then took on a longer life, as protesters created “Resurrection City,” made up of tents along the National Mall. The City eventually was closed down, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, in June of 1968.
Although the campaign made some changes in policy in counties across the nation, there was no direct outcome to solving poverty as Dr. King had hoped. However, the campaign sparked a national discourse on the importance of fair housing, better jobs, higher wages, and more that made progress towards lowering the poverty rate and closing the income gap.
Watch Brookings Institute Amy Liu's presentation on Inclusive Economic Growth including insightful data and powerful suggestions presented March 8, 2018 at the Greater Memphis Chamber breakfast.