A child born on Martin Luther
King’s 39th birthday in 1968 turns 39 this January 15. Perhaps that
is enough time to sort out his history and settle the core principles of
his legacy. This has not and will not be easy, because we honor King
for successes which he hardly celebrated. The Civil Rights Act of
1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were baby steps on the road to full
freedom, King said at the time. Civil rights laws alone could not
bridge the Red Sea separating us all from the promised land of community
and justice. It was a sea of poverty, costly war, and tenacious racial
apartheid etched into the geography of American property and privilege.
In 1956, King first sketched
his freedom dream. When we crossed over, we would find a world in
which "property and privilege are widely distributed, a world in which
men no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the
classes, a world in which our children are judged not by the color of their
skin but by the content of their character." That color-blind
ideal tightly circumscribes the boundaries of what most Americans think
of as King’s dream, articulated most famously at the 1963 March on Washington
for Jobs and Freedom.
Freedom and economic equality
need each other, King always believed. The Kennedy administration
and most journalists ignored the 1963 March’s demand for public works
programs for the unemployed, a minimum wage hike, and its extension to
domestic and agricultural workers. King applauded when Congress strengthened
measures against employment discrimination in Kennedy’s civil rights bill.
But when President Johnson signed that bill in July 1964, King was not jubilant.
He wrote in Harlem’s black newspaper that civil rights legislation
brought neither black political power nor the interracial alliances necessary
to dedicate America "to the elimination of the causes of poverty!"
Only a grand alliance could wage real war on "slums, inferior education,
inadequate medical care, the entire culture of poverty."
Before it could toddle toward
social democracy, the civil rights coalition faced armies of fear camouflaged for a
post-civil rights era. King denounced political entrepreneurs from
the South and West — Wallace, Stennis, Goldwater, Reagan — who repackaged
white resistance as opposition to welfare, quotas, punitive taxes, and
federal bureaucratic bullying. Ironically, these regions had benefited
the most from federal largess since the New Deal, King pointed out. The
fledgling social democratic coalition would have to mobilize "a legion
of the deprived."
In 1965, after the triumphal
march from Selma to Montgomery and the swift passage of the Voting Rights
Act, a wave of job losses and economic reprisals swept Deep South counties
where blacks turned out by the thousands to register to vote. If
reprisals continued, King announced, "the voting bill itself will
be the greatest danger to the economic security of the Negro." King
had hopes for Lyndon Johnson’s recently enacted War on Poverty, but already
he was protesting that poor people lacked effective political power to
compel white and middle-class controlled antipoverty agencies to include
them. Dilemmas and vicious circles surrounded freedom dreamers. And
voting rights enforcement and antipoverty programs left untouched northern
segregation, unemployment, and low-wage work. Weeks after the passage
of the Voting Rights Act, the Watts riot tore a deep hole in the civil
So too, within a year, did Vietnam.
King had been a relentless critic of Western empire and nationalistic
arms races years before Lyndon Johnson sent hundreds of thousands
of American troops into Vietnam’s jungles. "We leave the battlefields
of the world painted with blood in wars that burden us with national debts
higher than mountains of gold," he told a 1958 religious assembly.
Whether in South Africa or South Alabama, colonized peoples resisted
"segregation, political domination, and economic exploitation."
America was on the wrong side of the world revolution, King commented
after Kennedy’s botched invasion of Cuba in 1961. He said it to Lyndon
Johnson in 1965 and more loudly in 1967. He was universally vilified
by the FBI, the White House, the media, and the civil rights establishment,
allegedly for undermining the civil rights coalition with ill-informed
and extraneous talk about peace.
"The security we profess
to seek in foreign adventures, we will lose in our decaying cities. The
bombs in Vietnam explode at home — they destroy the hopes and possibilities
for a decent America," King told Congress in December 1966. At
his most radical, he charged that the U.S. military was simply a tool of
American corporate interests. America’s and Vietnam’s poor suffered
terribly as a result. But faced with shattered dreams, you still
dream dreams. "Human rights is the central world issue,"
King consistently insisted. Civil rights, political rights, and economic
rights reinforced each other. "Freedom is one thing — you have
it all, or you are not free."
On July 4, 1965, King preached
his most moving sermon, "The American Dream." As a nation
of immigrants and ex-slaves, America was a microcosm of the world, a "World
House." If we planted multiracial democracy in the fertile soil of
economic justice, our global moral force would outstrip all the military
divisions we could ever send to unfamiliar and hostile lands. Two
more years of warfare in American cities and Vietnam left King fearing
for the World House: "I want us to get New York straight. I
want us to get Atlanta straight," he preached. "If we can’t
get it straight here, the world is in trouble." King’s defeats
are worth remembering, because they remain our own.
Thomas F. Jackson is Associate
Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and
author of From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice.