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.
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
“The question confronting us as a nation is as consequential as any we have faced since the late 1940s,” a group of Republican and Democratic experts write.
Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, once dismissed the American foreign-policy establishment—those ex-government officials and think-tank scholars and journalists in Washington, D.C. who advocate for a particular vision of assertive U.S. leadership in the world—as the “Blob.” Donald Trump had harsher words. As a presidential candidate, he vowed never to take advice on international affairs from “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Both men pointed to one of the Beltway establishment’s more glaring errors: support for the war in Iraq.
Now the Blob is fighting back. The “establishment” has been unfairly “kicked around,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former official in the Reagan administration. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, “invented a foreign policy and sold it successfully to the American people. That’s what containment was and that’s what the Truman Doctrine was. … That was the foreign-policy establishment.” During that period, the U.S. government also helped create a system for restoring order to a world riven by war and economic crisis. That system, which evolved over the course of the Cold War and post-Cold War period, includes an open international economy; U.S. military and diplomatic alliances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; and liberal rules and institutions (human rights, the United Nations, and so on).
A $100 million gangster epic starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci has become too risky a proposition for major studios.
Martin Scorsese’s next project, The Irishman, is as close as you can get to a box-office guarantee for the famed director. It’s a gangster film based on a best-selling book about a mob hitman who claimed to have a part in the legendary disappearance of the union boss Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro is attached to play the hitman, Al Pacino will star as Hoffa, and Scorsese favorites Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel are also on board. After Scorsese branched into more esoteric territory this year with Silence, a meditative exploration of faith and Catholicism, The Irishman sounds like a highly bankable project—the kind studios love. And yet, the film is going to Netflix, which will bankroll its $100 million budget and distribute it around the world on the company’s streaming service.
You can tell a lot about a person from how they react to something.
That’s why Facebook’s various “Like” buttons are so powerful. Clicking a reaction icon isn’t just a way to register an emotional response, it’s also a way for Facebook to refine its sense of who you are. So when you “Love” a photo of a friend’s baby, and click “Angry” on an article about the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl, you’re training Facebook to see you a certain way: You are a person who seems to love babies and hate Tom Brady.
The more you click, the more sophisticated Facebook’s idea of who you are becomes. (Remember: Although the reaction choices seem limited now—Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, or Angry—up until around this time last year, there was only a “Like” button.)
High-school textbooks too often gloss over the American government’s oppression of racial minorities.
Earlier this month, McGraw Hill found itself at the center of some rather embarrassing press after a photo showing a page from one of its high-school world-geography textbooks was disseminated on social media. The page features a seemingly innocuous polychromatic map of the United States, broken up into thousands of counties, as part of a lesson on the country’s immigration patterns: Different colors correspond with various ancestral groups, and the color assigned to each county indicates its largest ethnic representation. The page is scarce on words aside from an introductory summary and three text bubbles explaining specific trends—for example, that Mexico accounts for the largest share of U.S. immigrants today.
Two historians weigh in on how to understand the new administration, press relations, and this moment in political time.
The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.
To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum
Neither truck drivers nor bankers would put up with a system like the one that influences medical residents’ schedules.
The path to becoming a doctor is notoriously difficult. Following pre-med studies and four years of medical school, freshly minted M.D.s must spend anywhere from three to seven years (depending on their chosen specialty) training as “residents” at an established teaching hospital. Medical residencies are institutional apprenticeships—and are therefore structured to serve the dual, often dueling, aims of training the profession’s next generation and minding the hospital’s labor needs.
How to manage this tension between “education and service” is a perennial question of residency training, according to Janis Orlowski, the chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Orlowski says that the amount of menial labor residents are required to perform, known in the profession as “scut work,” has decreased "tremendously" since she was a resident in the 1980s. But she acknowledges that even "institutions that are committed to education … constantly struggle with this,” trying to stay on the right side of the boundary between training and taking advantage of residents.
In late 2015, in the Chilean desert, astronomers pointed a telescope at a faint, nearby star known as ared dwarf. Amid the star’s dim infrared glow, they spotted periodic dips, a telltale sign that something was passing in front of it, blocking its light every so often. Last summer, the astronomers concluded the mysterious dimming came from three Earth-sized planets—and that they were orbiting in the star’s temperate zone, where temperatures are not too hot, and not too cold, but just right for liquid water, and maybe even life.
This was an important find. Scientists for years had focused on stars like our sun in their search for potentially habitable planets outside our solar system. Red dwarfs, smaller and cooler than the sun, were thought to create inhospitable conditions. They’re also harder to see, detectable by infrared rather than visible light. But the astronomers aimed hundreds of hours worth of observations at this dwarf, known as TRAPPIST-1 anyway, using ground-based telescopes around the world and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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