MLK: From Selma to Socialism

Image caption: “MLK on Lancaster Avenue” mural by Cliff Eubanks at 40th and Lancaster. Photo by Avery Minnelli.

By Clarence Harold Jones

“What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

This is the question that Dr. Martin Luther King had to face on that long road from Georgia to Alabama to Mississippi as he saw the multitude of poor people, black and white, across the South.

And not just in the South. When Dr. King brought the Civil Rights movement to the cities of the North, he saw the same multitude of poor. He saw them at the intersection of 40th Street and Lancaster Avenue here in Philadelphia in August 1965. And he saw that the marches for Civil Rights had to take on an additional focus. The following is in King’s own words:

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”

“We are saying that something is wrong with capitalism… There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of the slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism.”

“Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice.”

It was becoming increasingly clear that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice could not be separated.

“The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow, and when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.”

“…one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’… And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

“[A slum exists] because someone profits from its existence.”

“…we must face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.”

“…we must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income.”

Many people at the time would say that just giving people money would make them lazy and unproductive. This is King’s reply:

“The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold: We must create full employment, or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”

“The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished.”

In 1967, Dr. King began to speak out publicly against the war in Vietnam:

“… I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

“Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.”

“Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.”

. . .

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