A new book traces Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight against racism and economic exploitation as a framework for dealing with contemporary challenges in that unfinished work.
This year the country will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. That marker arrives as the United States slides backward on so many of the changes he and others worked toward — and in some cases sacrificed their lives for.
King aimed for a deep transformation of America, not just the sweet vision of children holding hands that is so often celebrated on his birthday. We need to understand more about that if we are going to get back on a road to what he called “the beloved community,” in which all people would be valued and treated with dignity.
Michael K. Honey has spent decades studying King and writing about him, and he is determined that more people understand King the way historians do.
Civil rights for all Americans was just the beginning of what King sought, Honey said. King wanted to eliminate poverty, assure everyone could have good health care, education and housing, and turn the country away from war.
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Honey, whom I’ve written about before, is a Haley Professor of Humanities at University of Washington, Tacoma, and author of the forthcoming book “To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice,” (W.W. Norton, April 2018).
King had faith that justice would eventually prevail, Honey said in an interview last week, but he was not naive. “He was constantly warning people in 1968 that we could always lose what we’ve gained,” Honey said. King said that right-wing forces, the military-industrial complex and white racial backlash would challenge any progress made.
Since King’s death, we’ve seen voting rights under attack in many states. We’ve seen the tremendous progress that civil-rights laws made possible stalled in the decades after. Affirmative-action efforts have been pared down, schools resegregated, and economic inequality is increasing.
People need some context for understanding where we are today. “I’m a teacher, so I’m always meeting people right out of high school,” Honey said. Students tell him they heard the “I Have a Dream” speech over and over and got bored by it, but what they didn’t usually get is history that would help them better understand the movement of King’s day and the framework it would provide them for understanding what’s happening today.
So he wrote a book that he hopes will fill some gaps for Americans who know only U.S. history lite. In the book his goal was to say, “Here’s what King did, here’s what he said, you figure out how it connects to the present.”
As King wrote, “Before you can come up with a cure, you first have to know the disease.”
King was killed while he was supporting a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, and planning for a Poor People’s March on Washington. He understood that civil rights wouldn’t be enough to uplift a community without economic power.
Memphis was a good place to start that campaign. In 1968, Honey writes, 60 percent of black residents lived in poverty. There was high black unemployment and few good jobs for those who could find work. Of black women with jobs, more than 80 percent worked in white homes, and 80 percent of employed black men labored in unskilled jobs.
King knew black people had gone from slavery to the limited opportunities of segregation, and that for people’s lives to change, the economic system had to change. King studied that history but also saw its impact on his own family. He was only two generations from slavery in his family, and because opportunities for education were limited for black people, King’s father was 21 when he learned to read and write.
And yet, America is a wealthy country.
King was aware that the wealth of this nation was built on the labor of enslaved people and the theft of Native American lands. He saw that poor white people and Mexican Americans also suffered under a system that valued cheap labor above human dignity. He believed in the necessity of coalition building but saw how racial ideas that were used to justify oppression also kept disadvantaged people of different races from coming together to dismantle it.
King’s efforts to achieve economic justice and his fight against the war in Vietnam and against militarism in general turned against him some people who had supported his calls for civil rights.
It’s one thing to dream of harmony and quite another to challenge the power that feeds on inequality and military might.
We can’t get to peace and love without justice.