ACCORDING TO LIZ - Martin Luther King may be venerated as a hero for Black Americans but he was even more a champion for the working people.
The fact that he took on the capitalist elite over their oppression of poor and working class Americans, regardless of race, was more likely the initiating cause of his murder than the decades of his historic work on behalf of Blacks.
A child of the segregated south, in his first public speech while still in high school, King noted that: "black America still wears chains. The finest negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar."
But when he started to gain traction with working men and women, when his stands on a war that unfairly sent a disproportionate number of young men of color to their deaths, when he started to shake the roots of the capitalist system that had started in tandem with the slave trade, that’s when he became a danger to the plutocracy.
What scared them was this was a man who had no fears and a lot of hope. Hope is contagious.
The night before his death straight-out said: “I've been to the mountaintop... Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now… He's allowed me to go up to the mountain… And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Drawing on the nonviolence of Gandhi, King promoted nonviolent resistance against the south’s Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination and helped push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, decisive achievements for all people of color.
During the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King called for civil and economic justice and an end to racial inequality in what is now known as his “I have a dream” speech.
Again this empowered the descendants of slaves but also all Americans living in poverty and gave them a target. The banks.
Banks that held trillions of dollars for white people and corporation and virtually none for people of color. Banks that charged more to lend to blacks than to whites. Banks that refused mortgages to black families but not to whites.
During the spring of 1966, several white couple/black couple tests of real estate offices had uncovered racial stereotyping: discriminatory processing of housing requests by couples who were exact matches in income, background, number of children, and other attributes, bringing rampant redlining to public attention.
Redlining, was more recently brought up as a national scandal by Ta-Nehisi Coates has existed since the time of Lincoln as a sub rosa continuation of racism around the country.
Despite his disdain of the hippies, the musical Hair which opened on Broadway 26 days after his murder in the song Abie Baby underlined King’s northern star: that the new nation, the land of Lincoln was dedicated to the proposition that all men, all men are created equal.
King felt too many Americans were asleep at the wheel during a time ripe for transformation: they “needed to wake up to the injustice all around them and make demands for change” and take action. A wake up in the sense it was understood by people in the 1960s before being “woke” was co-opted by the reactionary right to refer any progressive policy that it wished to denigrate.
For King, waking up was not simply understanding that racism is bad; it was acknowledging that racism had created generational wealth for white Americans while robbing Black Americans of the same economic subsidy.
King argued for economic justice for all Americans, not just the Blacks but the sharecropper white men, indigenous Americans, farm laborers from Mexico and Central America, the Irish, the Italians and the Asian immigrants, and the factory workers whose jobs get outsourced.
J. Edgar’s FBI, fearing his rising power especially after being honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, painted him as a communist saboteur of the great American dream.
Too many people back then chose to see him as a person with black skin who promoted different views, not as another human being. That allowed them to classify him as “other” and diminish his stature and power.
Yes, he made a compelling case for reparations, but not for cash hand-outs. Rather he wanted the reigning class to change the rules to ensure that all men and women, now born equal but who quickly fell by the wayside due to poverty and lack of opportunity, were guaranteed equal prospects for education and enrichment, for jobs and respect, for healthcare and housing.
King was in Memphis to support a strike by black public works employees whose pay was radically different from their white brethren; when sent home because of bad weather, blacks receive received two hours pay but white employees were paid a full day.
His murderer was a career criminal, a convicted armed robber and racist who had been sucking up George Wallace’s segregationist ramps during the presidential campaign. What drove Wallace and the segregationists? The fear that if they lost their power over the black men and women, that their economic power base would start to shatter.
King focused on the financial impacts of white supremacy and the need for America to make amends for its exploitation of Black labor. In the “awake” sermon, he made a compelling case for reparations based on the “debt” this country owed its Black citizens.
When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. The note was a promise that all men, yes black and white would be guaranteed the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness ... it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as the citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds."
At the same time Lincoln “freed” the slaves who were given nothing in reparation for years of labor, suffering and abuse, the country was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest to whites. Just giving it away for free.
It continued to subsidize the growth of these farms and, today, hands out millions of our tax dollars every year to farm conglomerates to grow certain crops or not to farm at all, some of the beneficiaries of which sit in Congress and our state legislatures.
This generational wealth built up by white Americans has given them more than a century of economic power over their darker-skinned neighbors. Naturally, those benefiting from this system will fight to maintain the status quo.
Reparations would require America and, especially, its elites to embrace its history seriously, and acknowledge the impact their policies had on black bodies, scrape the varnish off the idealized versions of European colonialism and the roles of the Protestant and Catholic churches who saw land occupied by other races as theirs to steal, as well as other whitewashed aspects of the American narrative, and recognize that some form of reparation is essential to restore equality and initiate redemption.
They should look to Canada’s process over recent years to come to terms with its abuse of indigenous peoples culminating in many changes at the federal and provincial level and the initiating of a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30th.
How many people know that the United States has its own Reconciliation Day, every April 2nd which is to mark our obligation to eradicate racism as well as to reconcile with others in our lives? Oops, perhaps because it’s missing the element of admitting the truth…
King felt his country had a moral obligation as a part of an interconnected society to care for people who were oppressed, both at home and beyond the borders of the United States and increasingly saw no distinction between the poor Black descendants of slaves and others suffering the indignities of poverty.
Over the years he expanded his vision from improving the lot of black Americans to addressing social issues and poverty that affect too many Americans and too many around the globe.
The arc of the moral universe may be long but it should and must bend towards justice. The urgency of the question he posed for us all remains, “What are you doing for others?”
Yes, Black Americans may want to keep MLK as their hero, but his legacy belongs to everyone. He was a truly a man ahead of his time.
(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)