Would MLK Support Reparations Today?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s a tricky question, and it was prompted by this reader:

I wanted to chime in on the spat between Bernie Sanders and Ta-Nehisi Coates regarding Bernie’s rejection of reparations. TNC deeply feels that the economic system America has today was deliberately built not just on the backs of slaves, but also on the backs of African-Americans who lived in the days of Jim Crow laws and even since the major civil rights victories of the ‘60s. I find it hard to disagree with this thesis based on the comprehensive evidence he marshaled in his landmark article making the case for reparations.

Who else agreed with TNC that the U.S. economy was engineered for the benefit of rich white people at the expense of African-Americans? A couple of years ago, TNC shared a video [embedded above] where Martin Luther King, Jr. fiercely critiqued the government for rejecting grants of land to African-Americans while officially opening up land in the Midwest to white farmers, funding land grant colleges for their education, and providing subsidies and other funding to prop up their farms. It’s difficult to argue that MLK didn’t believe African-Americans deserved reparations regardless of whether they were the descendants of slaves.

But MLK wasn’t necessarily just in favor of race-based reparations. In his 1967 book Where We Go From Here, MLK focused on poverty and explicitly argued against focusing on the plight of African-Americans to the expense of others in poverty:

In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: There are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.

He goes on to unequivocally state his support for a different kind of policy, an ongoing form of reparations to the poor regardless of their race:

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective -- the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Our nation’s adjustment to a new mode of thinking will be facilitated if we realize that for nearly forty years two groups in our society have already been enjoying a guaranteed income. Indeed, it is a symptom of our confused social values that these two groups turn out to be the richest and the poorest. The wealthy who own securities have always had an assured income; and their polar opposite, the relief client, has been guaranteed an income, however miniscule, through welfare benefits.

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

It’s difficult to argue that Sanders is in disagreement with MLK that we need to abolish poverty. The Vermont senator even said as much in response to a question on a Reddit AMA a couple of years ago:

There is no question that when we have today more people living in poverty than at any time in American history and when millions of families are struggling day by day just to keep their heads above water, we need to move aggressively to protect the dignity and well being of the least among us. Tragically, with cuts in food stamps, unemployment compensation and other important benefits, we are moving in exactly the wrong direction. There are a number of ways by which we can make sure that every man, woman and child in our country has at least a minimum standard of living and [unconditional basic income] is certainly something that must be explored.

Words are cheap. Action matters.

In that Ta-Nehisi post the reader referred to, he linked to a New York Times essay written by Michael Eric Dyson in 2000. The most relevant passage to this discussion:

If conservatives were to read and listen to King carefully, they would not only find little basis in King’s writings to justify their assaults in his name, but they would be brought up short by his vision of racial compensation and racial reparation, a vision far more radical than most current views of affirmative action. King wrote in Why We Can't Wait that few “people consider the fact that, in addition to being enslaved for two centuries,” that black folk were also robbed of wages for toil. It is worth quoting King at length:

No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. Such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest. I am proposing, therefore, that, just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.

King ingeniously anticipated objections to programs of racial compensation on the grounds they discriminated against poor whites who were equally disadvantaged. He knew that conservatives would manipulate racial solidarity through an insincere display of new-found concern for poor whites that pitted their interests against those of blacks. King claimed that “millions of [the] white poor” would benefit from the bill. Although he believed that the “moral justification for special measures for Negroes is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery,” many poor whites, he argued, were “the derivative victims” of slavery. He conceded that poor whites are “chained by the weight of discrimination” even if its “badge of degradation does not mark them.”

King understood how many poor whites failed to understand the class dimensions of their exploitation by elite whites who appealed to vicious identity politics to obscure their actions. King held that discrimination was in ways “more evil for [poor whites], because it has confused so many by prejudice that they have supported their own oppressors.” Hence, it was only just that a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, intent on “raising the Negro from backwardness,” would also rescue “a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.” For King, compensatory measures that were truly just — that is, took race into account while also considering class — had the best chance of bringing healing to our nation's minorities and to the white poor. It was never one or the other; both were a moral priority for King.

Any history scholars out there want to chime in? Drop us an email. On a related note, a reader points to one of Dr. King’s most famous associates:

I was looking into the role that Bernie Sanders played in Jesse Jackson’s win in the 1988 Vermont primary, and it turns out Jackson’s platform that year included reparations to descendants of black slaves. I wasn’t able to find any of Sanders’ statements from that time on reparations, but it would at least seem that he is not so hostile to the idea as Mr. Coates (whose work I greatly respect and enjoy) would seem to suggest.