Unpacking Race and Class: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Economic Justice

As MLK Day approaches, we will begin to see stories from the mainstream press about the man and his message. Over the years the press has tended to concentrate on his August 1963 speech at the March for Jobs and Freedom on the Washington Mall. But if we look at the message from an older King, the King of 1967 or 1968, we see a man much wearier and skeptical of government and the social infrastructure keeping their contract of equitable access to opportunity for all its citizens.

Journalists who examine King’s legacy need to include this latter period in their retrospectives. According to Thomas F. Jackson who wrote “Politics and Culture in Modern America: From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice,” King had been leaning more toward a social democratic political and economic philosophy by 1965, not long after President Lyndon Johnson had announced at Howard University his administration’s War on Poverty. Though King was keen with Johnson’s goals immediately after announcement, he soon became disillusioned with the gap between Johnson’s rhetoric to create greater access to opportunity and the administration’s policies.

A month after Johnson made his announcement about the War on Poverty, he made Vietnam a greater priority. King was particularly dismayed with Johnson’s budget cut to the program in 1967 from $3.4 billion to $1.75 billion with most of the lost money going to fuel the war in Vietnam. King also became concerned that the administration was too focused on “Negro pathology” – Patrick Moynihan, Johnson’s undersecretary of labor, attributed poor social and economic conditions of blacks to the breakdown of the family – rather than what he saw as the real root causes of poverty: a lack of jobs and financial security.

Jackson writes:

“But his political and structural explanations of poverty increasingly challenged liberal definitions that focused on something poor individuals lacked – skills, education, habits of work discipline, or “mainstream” norms they might pass on to their children. What if poverty resulted from each new generation’s confrontation with changing but relentless forms of economic denial, as the anthropologist Elliot Liebow argued in his powerful 1967 portrait of Negro streetcorner men, Tally’s Corner? (10) The island of poverty was larger than King had recognized, and millions of affluent Americans afloat on the vast ocean of material prosperity were dependent on the underpaid labor of its inhabitants.”

Journalists writing about education, housing, wealth and income, jobs and the criminal justice system have a lot to learn from this passage and King’s overall message from this final period of his life. In order for the public to understand poverty and racial disparity, audiences needs to understand the institutional and economic mechanisms that often constrain people’s agency to lift themselves up. Of course people have choices, but journalists need to reveal the context that often limits those choices.

Here is to better reporting in this area as we celebrate MLK Day.

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