Toward the end of his life, MLK's focus began to shift from ensuring racial equality to bridging the economic divide between the rich and poor
The timing was coincidental enough to be eerie. But just as crowds gathered in Washington, D.C. last Friday to dedicate the site for a new memorial on the Mall to Martin Luther King, Jr., I stumbled across the April, 19, 1968 issue of Life magazine among a mountain of papers, books and magazines I was clearing out of my parents' house in New York. It was one of only two issues of Life magazine my mother had kept. But on the cover was a close-up of Coretta Scott King, "beautiful and veiled in grief," as the writer Gordon Parks described her, at the funeral of her husband. And the coverage inside talked not only of Martin Luther King' Jr.s death and its aftermath, but also about the legacy and work he was leaving behind him.
There was, of course, discussion of the work he focused on in his "I Have A Dream" speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. (The public dedication of the new Memorial was originally scheduled for yesterday, the 48th anniversary of that speech, but Hurricane Irene forced organizers to postpone it.) But by 1968, both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had been passed, and King's focus was shifting from the basic cause of social and political equality for black people to the broader issue of economic equality -- for all poor people, regardless of race.
In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here, King noted that there were twice as many white poor as black poor people in the United States. "Therefore," he wrote, "I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination." Instead, he argued for better jobs, wages, housing, and education for all people suffering in poverty.
The Life editors also spoke of the "poor people's campaign" King was planning when he died. And In an article about a speech Coretta Scott King had given in his place, the day before his funeral service, Life quoted her as saying about her late husband,
He was concerned about the least of these (workers)... We are concerned about not only the Negro poor, but the poor all over America and all over the world. Every man deserves a right to a job or an income so that he can pursue liberty, life, and happiness. Our great nation, as he often said, has the resources, but his question was: "Do we have the will?" Somehow I hope in this resurrection experience the will will be created within the hearts and minds, and the souls and the spirits of those who have the power to make these changes come about.
Forty-three years later, with an African-American president sitting in the White House, it's easy enough to argue that significant progress has been made on the front of racial equality. But what of King's other dream -- of easing the burdens of the poor in a more equitable economic society?
In 1968, roughly 12-13 percent of the country was living below the poverty level. Today, that number is virtually unchanged. What's more, the disparity in income between the richest and poorest Americans has increased over the past decades. A 2010 Slate series on income inequality noted that in 1915, the richest 1 percent of Americans possessed 15-18 percent of the nation's income, and that today, that number has risen to 24 percent. And a few months ago, a PBS News Hour piece headlined "Income Inequality Gap Widens Among U.S. Communities Over 30 Years" looked more closely at the growing disparity of income by area in America.
Accompanying those hard numbers is an arguable hardening of attitude toward those less well off in the country. Perhaps we all feel closer to the edge than we did in the 1960s, and therefore less inclined to even the tables. But the sense of people taking care of themselves, as opposed to their neighbors, is far stronger today than it was when King was assassinated. It's hard to imagine today's Congress passing the Social Security Act of 1965, which raised Americans' taxes in order to make both Medicare and Medicaid possible.
The U.S. still has astounding financial resources. But the "will" Coretta Scott King talked about in that April, 1968 Life article still seems to elude us. Would King himself have been able to make a difference on that front, if he had lived? It's hard to say. But reading through that issue of Life, I was reminded again of the power Dr. King possessed to calmly but resolutely tweak the nation's conscience.
"King," the Life editors wrote, "insisted on the enlargement of the American dream of equality. Steady enlargement is the way it has always been kept alive... He bade white Americans face their simple duty of living up to their own best traditions in a context they had not been accustomed to... He asked to be remembered as a 'drum major for justice... for peace ... for righteousness.' Those old-fashioned abstractions have the force of continuity with what Americans have stood for, and often fought for, since their beginning. King insisted on non-violent means because he took the Sermon on the Mount seriously. But he attracted and defied violence because he took America seriously, and that can be a daring and unpopular thing to do."
King never tried to be a politician, necessarily mired in the messy, compromising bogs of campaigning or governance. His chosen role, instead, was to make it difficult for politicians to ignore his voice; a voice that argued convincingly for what was right; for what was just; and for how we needed to be, and could be, better. Not better off, but better members of the human race.
Would King's voice have made a difference in the economic inequality of today, or the tone of the debates raging over health care, taxes, and who should bear the burden for what? It's hard to say. But as the site for his memorial is dedicated in Washington, it's worth pondering his other dream... what he would have made of the arguments being waged over it today, and whether he would have thought us closer to, or further from, our better selves than we were the day he died.