Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the death—the martyrdom—of Martin Luther King Jr. And while I am more interested in King’s life than his death, it does bring pause that we have still come so short a way toward the elimination of poverty in the US. King was in Memphis on April 4, 1968 to participate in a march being conducted by the local sanitation workers, when he was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum. We will hear much about King today. But the question is, What will we do to eliminate poverty?
King died trying to rid our nation and world of the triple evils: racism, poverty, and war.
“Dr. King proclaimed in one of his final sermons, “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.” The goal of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was “to redeem the soul of the nation.” The soul of a nation is its social structures, political discourse, and quality of life – democracy.
In what is considered his most “dangerous” speech – “A Time to Break the Silence” – King employed the tortured phrase “vocation of agony.” King named the challenge of calling upon God in the struggle for social justice. He gave this speech in the midst of death threats, repudiation from SCLC’s board, and merciless attacks in the mainstream and African-American media. A major task of King’s public speech was to rebel against the monopoly on religious discourse shaped by conservative religious individuals and institutions, thereby creating space for the revelation of the prophetic God:
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate for our limited vision, but we must speak.
King carved out a place where the task of religion is to challenge the role of government. His notion of “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” highlighted the role of the United States in both the manipulation of foreign governments and its treatment of the poor (at home and abroad) that has led to a crisis in American democracy.”
King’s last campaign
“By the late 1960s, King had helped secure historic victories in the fight for racial equality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in government, employment and housing. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed.
King then turned to a new campaign for economic justice. He called for a bill of rights for poor people that would offer massive government job programs and guarantee livable wages.
He joined the Memphis sanitation workers on the picket line as an effort in that fight.
King argued that poverty was not a natural condition but resulted from bad economic policies, inadequate government investment and workers’ lack of bargaining power, says William Spriggs, chair of Howard University’s economics department. Spriggs co-wrote a report released Wednesday about King’s solutions to end poverty.
“He understood that if you pay workers a low wage, then who will buy the products, and who will buy the houses?” Spriggs says. “His desire to help the workers was rooted in that understanding.”
The national campaign, however, never fully took off. After King was killed, it withered.
“What he was talking about would cost millions, even billions,” says King’s oldest son, Martin Luther King III. ‘He called it a ‘guaranteed annual income,’ what we call a ‘living wage.’ He was prophetic.
“It’s radical,” King’s son says. “That’s why it has not happened.”
Martyred At the Lorraine
I can see Martin.
On that balcony.
Hosea. Jesse. Martin. Ralph.
But you will say,
my mind is playing tricks.
That was the night before,
he gave that speech
to those garbage men,
going to Mason’s Chapel in pouring rain,
tired as he was.
Sure he would march.
But who would guess,
his final speech
would come in Memphis?
The baritone softly hums “Precious Lord,”
and he smiles.
That was the day
I can see Martin.
At that Negro motel.
He throws out his chest,
waves his hand as he speaks,
into the nip of an April twilight,
perhaps picturing his “four little children”:
a robust man, he tells
of what he sees atop the mountain—
in the land beyond,
in the view.
“Oh! . . . ”
The bullet pierced its intended,
and Ralph gently cradled
Martin’s dying head. Who, now,
will choose redemption,
suffering—to implement the dream?
I see Martin carried.
From the Lorraine.
A widening pool of still-warm blood
Helen Losse, “Making All Things New: The Redemptive Value of Unmerited Suffering in the Life and Works of Martin Luther King Jr.,” MALS thesis (Wake Forest University, 2000).
Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of King. Do you believe that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke prophetically? If so, does it affect how you live? Will it affect how you vote? Do you care about the poor?
Did King die in vain? Or is the arm of justice long—as he often preached—but bound to conquer evil in time?
“Nothing could be more tragic than for men to live in these revolutionary times and fail to achieve the new attitudes and the new mental outlook that the new situation demands.“—Martin Luther King Jr.
UPDATE: “The Other Side of the Mountain” in the Washington Post
Hat Tip Sherry