Everybody wants to claim a piece of the spirit of Martin Luther King in support of his or her cause. A Pentagon official even had the nerve to say King, who championed nonviolence, would have supported U.S. wars in Afghanistan.
That’s an especially dubious assertion given that the civil rights leader became an increasingly vocal opponent of the Vietnam war, in a move that cost him some support.
What would King make of the U.S. in 2011?
We don’t need to guess. We have the record of his words and deeds, especially in his final year.
As early as 1957, King was highlighting the disparities between rich and poor, In a speech celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Highlander Center, a grass-roots organizing center in Tennessee, he said: “I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”
By 1963 King was moving his fight for strictly civil rights for minorities, like voting and equal access to public facilities, toward a broader struggle for economic rights for the disadvantaged and least powerful, recognizing that civil rights without economic rights couldn’t guarantee the opportunity and justice for all promised that was key to the great democratic experiment “What good is to it have the right to be able to sit at a lunch counter,” he asked, “if you can’t afford a hamburger.”
He gave the “I have a dream” speech that galvanized a nation at a march on Washington that demanded both jobs and freedom.
But it was in the last year of his life that his focus on economic injustice became most acute and profound.
He put in motion an effort to organize poor people, not just to focus on their plight, but also so they could fight for better jobs and decent housing for themselves.
King certainly would have celebrated the historic election of the nation’s first black president, and Obama began his presidency by evoking King’s spirit.
But the civil rights leader- he would have recognized that that election was not a resting place amid the economic suffering of so many.
He would not have abided the bailouts and tax cuts that allowed bankers and the wealthiest to prosper while those without access to the backrooms of power suffer. He would not have abided the widening gulf between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans, knowing the dire consequences of that division, not just for the poor and the middle class but also for the whole country.
He also would not have been surprised how tough it is to fight the entrenched power of corporations brought back from the dead by compliant politicians.
“It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job,” King said in April 1967 at Stanford University in a speech entitled `The Other America' that rings as sadly true today as it did more than 40 years ago, with its reference to "work-starved men searching for jobs that don't exist".
“It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions," King said at Stanford. "It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.”
Tomorrow: King in Memphis