Fifty-two years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, his radical economic agenda reverberates through a pandemic-ridden nation at a prophetic tilt.
“If the society changes its concepts by placing the responsibility on its system, not on the individual, and guarantees secure employment or a minimum income, dignity will come within reach of all,” King said.
As the economy grinds to a halt to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the triage of policies designed to fill the yawning holes in the nation’s social safety net looks a lot like what Dr. King ordered. The $2 trillion congressional emergency relief bill, CARES Act, evokes King’s call for guaranteed income, healthcare access and a living wage, according to experts watching the crisis response unfold.
For example, relief payments cushion against immediate financial losses people have suffered as a result of layoffs, according to the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank. The law provides $150 billion to boost hospital capacity and other healthcare supports, and has ignited the discussion around universal basic income (UBI) even though one-time direct payments to individuals are clearly not that.
“Coronavirus has really cast into sharp relief how unequal and unjust vast swaths of American society actually are,” said Peniel E. Joseph, author of the just-released “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.”
As of April 3, more than 239,000 U.S. residents have tested positive for the coronavirus and 5,443 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Shelby County, 640 residents have tested positive and seven have died, the City of Memphis reports. Jobless numbers are unprecedented: 10 million newly jobless workers filed for unemployment benefits in March, which is reportedly taxing online systems. Last week, 94,492 Tennesseans filed for unemployment, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
The growing number of stay-at-home orders by states and local government reveal the chasms among workers. Among the distinct groups are those who can comfortably shelter in place with easy access to food, reliable internet connections and the ability to hoard toilet paper. There are those suddenly without work who can’t stretch their dollars to accommodate the moment. And there are essential workers such as Sepia Coleman, a home health aide. She told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism about the lack of personal protective equipment on the job and how she risks infection while ministering to the sick.
This moment also reveals “how deeply [King] was interested in not just the social safety net but redistributive wealth as a precursor to redistributive justice,” said Joseph, the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the University of Texas at Austin. King was “very much inspired by the social democratic infrastructures that he had witnessed in Scandinavia, especially when he visited Sweden for the Nobel Prize.”
To mark the anniversary of King’s assassination, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism talked to thought leaders, including Joseph, about King’s agenda and this moment. Below are the reflections of Simon Balto, assistant professor of African American History at the University of Iowa; Cornell Brooks, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at the John F. Kennedy School of Government; Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First; and Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center. They make the case through King’s own words.
King said: “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age.”
“By the time he was murdered, King was deeply wary of capitalism and its attending inequalities, exploitations, and abuses of human beings,” said Simon Balto, author of “Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power.”
“This pandemic is laying bare all the ways that capitalism compounds the crisis,” he said. “We are short on masks because production of them was outsourced overseas. Capitalism did that. Our politicians can’t have coherent conversations about addressing the crisis that don’t prioritize corporate welfare over human welfare. Capitalism did that.
“Millions of Americans work in horribly precarious roles in the gig economy and have had what livelihood existed totally evaporate,” Balto told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. “Capitalism created that precarity. Untellable numbers of people will die because they don’t have access to affordable medical care. Capitalism did that. And on and on. Dr. King knew that capitalism was itself a crisis. We are seeing that crisis on display now, just as it compounds the crisis of the pandemic.”
King said: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.”
Cornell Brooks at Harvard’s Kennedy School says COVID-19 reveals justice challenges the working poor and people of color have long faced. The warnings about the increased effect the virus can have on people who have other medical conditions, called “comorbidities,” is just another way to say “poverty” and “inequity.”
“We know that people were being infected before we became aware of the need for tests; that is also true with the underlying inequities,” Brooks said. “COVID-19 has the potential to essentially viralize injustice.”
Among Brooks’ concerns are criminal justice, voter access and what he calls the “tiering of risks” related to healthcare access for marginalized communities. For example, people who are charged but not convicted or have other issues that may be otherwise met are “entombed in the carceral state,” that is a petri dish for COVID-19, Brooks said. And talk of postponing elections, like the 15 states that have put off primaries, is a democracy challenge that “speaks to who participates in elections.”
One remedy to Machiavellian voter suppression efforts would be to convene a congressional working group to discuss a second stimulus and to put policy matters that relate to black and brown bodies on the front burner instead of asking these communities of interest to wait till the crisis is over.
On healthcare, Brooks said: “So we’re simply looking at the number of people showing up without looking at the condition of the people showing up — again — tiering the risk, tiering the mortality, tiering the infection rate.”
Creating a hierarchy of risk leaves essential workers, many of whom don’t earn a living wage, at the bottom of access while they expose themselves to danger daily. People struggling at home may be forced to go out shopping for food and essentials more often because what they can afford at any given moment doesn’t stretch, according to Brooks.
King said: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Greg LeRoy at Good Jobs First, a D.C.-based policy center whose work includes promoting corporate and government responsibility in economic development, has a simple step that governments can take to recommit to economic equity and put dollars back in tax coffers: End tax incentives. PILOTS.
These incentives are officially called “payments in lieu of taxes.” This particular incentive is more of a corporate entitlement, according to critics like Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis.
“Memphis — because it’s such a good place to work for some certain kinds of companies and explains why so many of them are there — should also be expected now to stop making sweetheart deals, be very aggressive about watching the store to make sure that the deals that they gave in the past are really paying off, or else get the money back from the company,” LeRoy said.
King said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
At Tennessee Justice Center, Michele Johnson has witnessed barriers people face, especially across racial lines, as she and her team work to connect families to health and nutrition, while advocating greater healthcare access.
“Year after year, these denials cause heartbreak, needless suffering, financial ruin and even death. The immorality of this suffering while elected officials continue to play politics with health care can only be understood if you assume they don’t believe Dr. King’s insight. These folks believe in an ‘us vs. them’ America.
“His work inspires us to see and to address the overwhelming disparities in health care that mean an African American baby is twice as likely to die before his first birthday than a white baby,” Johnson said. “These disparities are rooted in structural racism and are fixable if we remember his words and all work to fix them. The lesson that many are learning for the first time during this pandemic is our destinies are indeed woven together. And together we can and must do better.”
King said: “Now we must develop progress, or rather, a program — and I can’t stay on this long — that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income.”
All the fault lines that link opportunity and equality are clear, said Greg LeRoy at Good Jobs First.
“The government is effectively sustaining corporate pay for the country,” LeRoy said in reference to universal basic income (UBI), a kind of income floor amplified by King and a growing movement today. “It’s a publicly funded employment program; call it what you want, but it’s like UBI.”
Joseph adds that King was committed to a broad and expansive notion of radical black citizenship that includes many of the issues society is grappling with now. The public policy expert notes that young adults are drawn to the social democratic policies that gripped King’s imagination, too.
“Younger people, when you look at polls and stuff, are more receptive to social democratic public policy,” said Joseph, who credited Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with popularizing social democratic principles. “They have a realization of the depth and breadth of income inequality in the United States and how income inequality is really connected to political economy and the life chances of everyone.”
Deborah Douglas is managing editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.