Each January we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and despite the annual remembrance, King remains a misunderstood and mythologized figure. Some on the right try to highjack his holiday to support a program of dismantling affirmative action along with the entire public sector. Dr. King favored affirmative and called for the government to provide “compensatory compensation” to those who faced discrimination. He wrote: “a society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.” He believed government had to use its power to create greater equality of opportunity and of condition. He was with the 99%.
Dr. King was a strong advocate of unions. In 1962, he addressed the United Packinghouse Workers Union of America in Minneapolis. At this meeting he reminded his audience that the Labor and Civil Rights Movements share much in common. He said, “like you we are deeply concerned with minimum wages, with social security, with health measures. Like you, we want housing fit for families to live in happily and comfortably. Like you, we want job security in our working days and retirement security when we grow old.” He called for a new politics, where people of color joined with organized labor to support candidates “with programs benefiting ordinary people, not merely the over privileged.” Dr. King was with the 99%.
Dr. King spoke out against war because he opposed violence and because it led to poverty at home. In April, 1967, during a speech at the Riverside Church, King said, “A few years ago… it seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And 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.” Dr. King opposed war because it channeled human energy into destruction instead of community and channeled government resources into death instead of life. Dr. King was with the 99%.
Dr. King participated in peaceful demonstrations and almost certainly would have joined the Occupy Movement. His last major project was called the Poor People’s Campaign. He planned for a massive occupation of Washington DC by poor people who would demand decent jobs and the right to a decent life. Dr. King did not live long enough to see the Poor People’s Campaign begin, his partner Coretta Scott King led the first wave of thousands into Washington to establish Resurrection City, a mass of tents and shacks that stayed on the mall from May 12, 1968 until June 24, 1968 when the Interior Department shut it down. Dr. King was with the 99%.
Among the last documents we have from Dr. King are collected in a marvelous book called, The Trumpet of Conscience. In imagining what he would say to us today, I leave you with this passage:
“A true revolution in values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast between poverty and wealth. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting the poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues to year after year spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
Dr. King was with the 99%.