During the last year of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, his ability to persuade and to gain a national consensus around issues of war, poverty, economic injustice and inequality suffered by blacks and all people of color had waned. Faced with increasing hostility to him and the movement along with the rising white backlash that eventually would give birth to Nixon’s Silent Majority coalition, King knew moral suasion would not give him the results for which he had hoped.
Thus, King began a campaign, grounded in nonviolence that aimed to force the government to act on behalf of the movement. No longer believing government officials would “do the right thing,” King called for a campaign of massive civil disobedience that would lead to economic boycotts and massive disruption. By doing this, King asked activists to bear witness to their suffering in hopes these actions would convict the government.
He planned to implement this strategy in through the Poor People’s Campaign. During a press conference to announce the campaign on December 4, 1967, King said the Southern Christian Leadership Conference planned on leading the “nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D. C.” to demand “jobs or incomes for all.” He further said, “We will go there, we will demand to be heard and we will stay until America responds.”
While acknowledging the success of past actions, he knew the campaign would call for something more than a one-day march; it would require a continual and relentless campaign aimed at political leaders until some “definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.” King’s goal was to lead millions of people to Washington, D.C., to delay and disrupt the normal order of things.
At this point, given Dr. King’s educational pedigree and status within the black bourgeoisie, this level of confrontation may have surprised many people, especially those in pockets of black “respectability,” like the black church. But an examination of King’s rhetoric during the last year of his life would reveal he was headed toward this trajectory.
For instance, in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, not only does King break away from the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, with whom he had cultivated a complicated relationship, but King also breaks away from the idea of an American exceptionalism, the notion that this country is set apart by democratic ideals and personal freedom: American was no longer good because God ordained America to be such, but America had major problems — flaws it must face to be the country it claimed to be.
For King, America was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. In his “The Other America” speech, King calls on his audience to see that the movement was heading toward another stage, arguing the “struggle today is much more difficult. It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job.”
Through this insight King began to re-examine his position on Black Power, a fiery brand of self-determination and self-defense favored by black activists in the North. In the past, he felt the Black Power ethos as a viable tactic was too divisive and not inclusive of all good-willed people. In his re-examination, King made a startling confession, “We must frankly acknowledge that in past years, our creativity and imagination were not employed in learning how to develop power. Now we must take the next major step of examining the levers of power which Negroes must grasp to influence the course of events.”
King called racism, excessive materialism and militarism the “Three Evils of Society.” In this speech he challenged America to “refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is freedom and equality, while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm.” He reminded the country, “Capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor” and that the war in Vietnam has inflicted more damage to our “moral standing” in the world than any other enemy.
However, despite his pessimism throughout the last year of his life, in a sermon titled “The Meaning of Hope” in December 1967, King declared he had a “realistic hope,” one “based on a willingness to face the risk of failure and embrace an in-spite-of quality.” He believed there was a “power in hope if you recognize that it is a final refusal to be stopped.”
As we prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death in Memphis on April 4, I suggest this understanding of King will help us face many of the same issues he faced.
Fifty years later, we are still in a perpetual war that looks like it will never end. Fifty years later, poverty is still an issue in the “richest country in the world. Fifty years later, racism is still a scourge. The same way Americans vilified Black Power is the same way we vilify Black Lives Matter. Today, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The government still supports the wealthy and the elite through tax cuts and tax incentives. Governments are still passing Jim Crow voting suppression bills, and we are still wondering “where do we go from here?”
Wherever we head, we must, as King did, continue bear witness in our own time, resting in knowing we did our part and found ourselves on the right side of history. It’s no surprise King said it best: “We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.”
Andre E. Johnson, Ph.D., is senior pastor of Gifts of Life Ministries in Memphis.
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