Martin Luther King and Economic Justice

by Thomas F.  Jackson



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In 1968, a united black community in Memphis stepped forward to support 1,300 municipal sanitation workers as they demanded higher wages, union recognition, and respect for black personhood embodied in the slogan “I Am a Man!” Memphis’s black women organized tenant and welfare unions, discovering pervasive hunger among the city’s poor and black children. They demanded rights to food and medical care from a city and medical establishment blind to their existence.

That same month, March 1968, 100 grassroots organizations met in Atlanta to support Martin Luther King’s dream of a poor people’s march on Washington. They pressed concrete demands for economic justice under the slogan “Jobs or Income Now!” King celebrated the “determination by poor people of all colors” to win their human rights. “Established powers of rich America have deliberately exploited poor people by isolating them in ethnic, nationality, religious and racial groups,” the delegates declared.

So when King came to Memphis to support the strike, a local labor and community struggle became intertwined with his dream of mobilizing a national coalition strong enough to reorient national priorities from imperial war in  Vietnam to domestic reconstruction, especially in America’s  riot-torn cities. To non-poor Americans, King called for a “revolution of values,” a move from self-seeking to service, from property rights to human rights.

King’s assassination—and the urban revolts that followed—led to a local Memphis settlement that furthered the cause of public employee unionism. The Poor People’s March nonviolently won small concessions in the national food stamp program. But reporters covered the bickering and squalor in the poor people’s tent city, rather than the movement’s detailed demands for waging a real war on poverty. Marchers wanted guaranteed public employment when the private sector failed, a raise in the federal minimum wage, a national income floor for all families, and a national commitment to reconstruct cities blighted by corporate disinvestment and white flight. And they wanted poor people’s representation in urban renewal and social service programs that had customarily benefited only businesses or the middle class. King’s dreams reverberated back in the movements that had risen him up.

It is widely believed that King’s deep dedication to workers’ rights and international human rights came late in life, when cities burned, Vietnamese villagers fled American napalm, and King faced stone-throwing Nazis in Chicago’s white working-class inner suburbs. But King began his public ministry in Montgomery in 1956, dreaming of “a world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”  He demanded that imperial nations give up their power and privileges over oppressed and colonized peoples struggling against “segregation, political domination, and economic exploitation”—whether they were in South Africa or South Alabama.

King’s commitments to economic justice and workers’ rights are becoming more widely appreciated today as we continue to confront all of the unresolved challenges King confronted in his day.

Beyond Civil Rights

Around 1964, King announced that the movement had moved “beyond civil rights.” Constitutional rights to free assembly, equality in voting, and access to public accommodations had marched forward with little cost to the nation, he said. Human rights—to dignified work, decent wages, income support, and decent housing for all

Americans—would cost the nation billions of dollars.  In other speeches, however, King recognized that human rights and civil rights were bound up with each other, part of a “Worldwide Human Rights Revolution.”

The practical experience of building a movement had already made these connections. In Montgomery’s struggle to desegregate bus seating, for example, King heralded the American “right to protest for right,” but discovered that it was inseparable from the human rights to work and eat. Why? Hundreds of African Americans were fired or evicted or denied public aid for expressing themselves politically, and King was intimately involved in campaigns for their material relief. This pattern continued throughout the 1960s. The southern struggle for rights became a struggle against poverty long before Lyndon Johnson’s wars in Vietnam and on poverty.

Similarly, in New York City in 1959, King joined A. Philip Randolph and Malcolm X in supporting the white, black and Puerto Rican workers of New York’s newly organized Local 1199. Over 3,000 hospital workers—laundry workers, cafeteria workers, janitors and orderlies—struck seven New York private hospitals. At the bottom of the new service economy they were legally barred from collective bargaining; excluded from minimum wage protections and unemployment compensation; and denied the medical insurance that might give them access to the hospitals where they worked. Harlem’s black community rallied to their defense. King cheered a struggle that transcended “a fight for union rights” and had become a multiracial “fight for human rights.”

Today We Continue the Struggles

King’s commitments to economic justice and workers’ rights are becoming more widely appreciated today as we continue to confront all of the unresolved challenges King confronted in his day. Joblessness is still pervasive under the official unemployment statistics, and wages remain too low to lift millions of people out of poverty. Conservative politicians and globalizing corporations have relentlessly chipped away at union rights and workplace safety. Tattered safety nets have become even shoddier for poor people who are not capable of earning. Forty-seven million Americans are, medically, second-class citizens. Unequal landscapes of wealth and opportunity in housing and schools still make the words “American apartheid” a dirty but accurate epithet.  And again, in a different part of the world, our military wages a war of empire cloaked in robes of democratic idealism. On the right, complacent religious leaders preach family morality and personal responsibility, while neglecting our collective moral commitments to materially supporting “the least of these.” But across the country too, citizens are uncovering stones of hope and finding new democratic determination. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go, as King would say. Lost ground and shattered dreams are bearable, he would have preached, as we continue the struggles for multiracial democracy, economic justice, and human dignity that were begun long ago, under even more challenging circumstances than we  face today.

Thomas F. Jackson is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and author of the prizewinning From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)

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Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 77 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

July 06, 2017
· 16 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz, schwartzjoem@gmail.com.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

July 09, 2017
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You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

Running for the National Political Committee

July 11, 2017
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Join this call to hear a presentation and ask questions about the role, duties and time commitment of a member of DSA's National Political Committee. In the meantime, check out the information already on our website about the NPC.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
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Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.