During the last three years of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr., was making some changes in his approach to realizing his vision of the beloved community.
After having received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964 and witnessing the Voting Rights Bill enacted into law the following year; King was acutely aware of the challenges ahead. Issues concerning educational attainment, Job training, employment opportunities, poverty, and militarization became increasingly important since the so-called cosmetic changes relating to interstate travel, public accommodations, civil rights, and the franchise had been tackled. King recognized the road ahead would be difficult and more complex because dealing with the multifaceted dimensions of economic development is a task that would impact and call into question the very nature of American society and its role in the world
It is easier for many of us to focus on the earlier King. As long as he was addressing racial discrimination in its overt forms, he was all right with us. Allowing a person to sit anywhere on a bus or to eat at whatever restaurant of one’s own choosing was not a serious concession to make.
However, attacking the gap between the haves and the have-nots in all of its social forms, which became King’s focus in the latter part of 1965until his assassination in April1968, met with much resistance. Why? Because it would concentrate on more subtle types of racial discrimination and call into question the very structure and processes of the American capitalist and militarist system.
King believed that the gap in educational achievement between blacks and whites could be closed not only by improving the quality of schools in ghettoized neighborhoods, but also by improving the socioeconomic and political options available to the poor. He sought the cooperation of businesses to offer on-the-job training to help reshape the economic conditions of impoverished communities and improve the changes of the younger generation to realize success in life.
Since the employment picture was bleak, King also advocated a guaranteed annual income so that the poor would be able to meet the needs of their families. King championed a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged to assist the indigent in becoming full participants in the fabric of our democratic republic.
In addition, King backed President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative. But because of the escalation of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War, this endeavor was significantly diminished—much to King’s consternation. He believed that the war effort considerably diverted attention away from eliminating the concerns of the economically depressed and exploited, not to mention that the war sent young black men onto the battlefield abroad while they were continually locked out of equal opportunities at home.
King broadened the scope of his proactive concern for the poor by seeking by seeking to speak to all those who are economically strapped regardless of their racial and ethnic background. Thus was born the Poor People’s Campaign.
What King attempted to do was to gather people together in a tent city in the nation’s capital to bring the plight of the poor front and center. He wanted the Johnson administration and Congress to take seriously the War on Poverty by instituting steps to end economic injustice.
King was promoting a bold and dynamic nonviolent revolution that would take on the socio-structural problems of racism, poverty, militarism, materialism, and anticommunism. As a matter of fact, King had become increasingly convinced that the traditional tools of the civil rights movement—boycotts,sit-ins, demonstrations, etc.—were no longer effective in the new era of social action he was inaugurating.
He felt the time for depending on the largesse of the white population and for counting on governmental goodwill was over. Consequently, he was no longer averse to utilizing massive civil disobedience to sabotage the functioning of the social system until these structural problems were attended to and resolved. The world never got to see the radicalization of the Movement under King’s leadership. Today, we find the very things King desired to eliminate still plaguing us: racial and ethnic disparities in education, employment, economic class, health care, incarceration, home ownership, social mobility, and so forth. To honor King’s dream and to continue his search for the beloved community, we need to make a concerted effort to eliminate racism and poverty.
In 2015, 50 years after King’s decision to shift his focus and to wage a new nonviolent revolution, we should work together in creative ways to improve the lot of those who are suffering.