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 [I first wrote this diary in January 2008 for MLK's B-Day, and reposted it in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.  

This talks about a part of Dr. King's life between the "I have a dream speech" and his assassination that often is skipped over in the TV version we get now.  This part of his life is not more important than his years leading the bus boycott or in Birmingham, Selma and other places.  It is, however, consistent with those years and efforts, but often is downplayed because it shows a revolutionary Dr. King who saw issues of race, class, and empire to be linked, and found common cause with the dispossessed of the world.  Dr. King was a Christian who saw the teachings of his faith to require intervention on behalf of the poor.

One of my favorite statements by Dr. King during those years was his insight that "charity" was not enough, that restructuring our society to be a decent society was the only answer to the problems of poverty:  


"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
I think the post still is relevant and hope you enjoy this on the day the first African American president is innaugurated for his second term!]

Here's a link to the original post from January 2008:The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You Don't See on TV

I want to talk about the Dr. King you likely won't see on TV.

But after passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation's fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without "human rights" — including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.

Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for "radical changes in the structure of our society" to redistribute wealth and power.

Media Beat (1/4/95)

More, after the fold [orange squiggle now].

What TV viewers see is a closed loop of familiar file footage: King battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963); reciting his dream of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963); marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama (1965); and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis (1968).

An alert viewer might notice that the chronology jumps from 1965 to 1968. Yet King didn't take a sabbatical near the end of his life. In fact, he was speaking and organizing as diligently as ever.

Almost all of those speeches were filmed or taped.
But they're not shown today on TV.


It's because national news media have never come to terms with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years.

The ill fated second phase of the civil rights struggle

I want to talk about the second phase of the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King, Jr. labeled the Poor People’s Campaign the “second phase,” of the civil rights struggle. The “first phase” focused on the segregation problems. Both phases were addressed in a non-violent manner.
poor people's march for economic human rights

Over time, Dr. King came to a holistic critique of the system in America that went far beyond the segregation in the South and even race itself:

As the freedom movement of the 1950s and early 1960s confronted poverty and economic reprisals, King championed trade union rights, equal job opportunities, metropolitan integration, and full employment. When the civil rights and antipoverty policies of the Johnson administration failed to deliver on the movement's goals of economic freedom for all, King demanded that the federal government guarantee jobs, income, and local power for poor people. When the Vietnam war stalled domestic liberalism, King called on the nation to abandon imperialism and become a global force for multiracial democracy and economic justice.
From Civil Rights to Human Rights, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

But first, we must understand some history leading up to Dr. King's creation of the Poor People's Campaign.

MLK empathized more and more with all people suffering from poverty in the late 1960's. As a result he started trying to help not just Blacks but all disadvantaged Americans.

When asked why he wanted to help whites from places like the Appalachian mountains, King answered: "Are they poor?"

wikipedia, Poor People's Campaign

Dr. King understood that the struggle for racial justice mirrored the struggle for economic justice.  You could not achieve true racial justice without economic justice for all.  The two went hand in hand.  He saw the labor movement as key to that struggle.

"The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society."
Speech to the state convention of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Oct. 7, 1965

In words that sound strikingly familiar today, he called for a raise in the minimum wage, seeing it as a key civil rights issue.

"We know of no more crucial civil rights issue facing Congress today than the need to increase the federal minimum wage and extend its coverage.


"While we are mindful of the shocking fact that less than one-half of all non-white workers are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, we do not speak for Negro workers only.

"A living wage should be the right of all working Americans, and this is what we wish to urge upon our Congressmen and Senators as they now prepare to deal with this legislation."

Statement on minimum wage legislation, March 18, 1966

Ending poverty in America for Dr. King was a matter of "elementary economic justice":

"Today Negroes want above all else to abolish poverty in their lives and in the lives of the white poor. This is the heart of their program.

"To end the humiliation was a start, but to end poverty is a bigger task. It is natural for Negroes to turn to the labor movement because it was the first and pioneer anti-poverty program....

"Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice....

Speaking to shop stewards of Local 815, Teamsters and the Allied Trades Council, May 2, 1967

Dr. King also saw how the war was both immoral and took funding away from the needs of the people:

By 1967, King had become the country's most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic.

In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before he was murdered -- King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

Time magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi," and the Washington Post declared that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

The ill fated second phase of the civil rights struggle

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam.

I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience, 1967

In that speech on April 4, 1967, Dr. King spoke of the need for a radical transformation of our system:

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.

 "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

Justice, Equality, and Martin Luther King
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.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967

Acting on this belief, in late 1967, Dr. King planned the Poor People's Campaign.

In his last months, King was organizing the most militant project of his life: the Poor People's Campaign.

He crisscrossed the country to assemble "a multiracial army of the poor" that would descend on Washington — engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be — until Congress enacted a poor people's bill of rights.

Reader's Digest warned of an "insurrection."

King's economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its "hostility to the poor" — appropriating "military funds with alacrity and generosity," but providing "poverty funds with miserliness."

Media Beat (1/4/95)

Dr. King believed that the organized poor could change America:

"There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life..."
-- The Trumpet of Conscience, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, 1967.
King was ready to confront the organized force of the United States Government with non-violent civil disobedience.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C. next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all.

We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule we embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination.

In short, we will be petitioning our government for specific reforms and we intend to build militant nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty.

Press conference announcing the Poor People's Campaign, 4 December 1967

He planned acts of non-violent civil disobedience at the Capitol, federal offices, and even the White House:

Press conference announcing the Poor People's Campaign, 4 December 1967

[Question:] Can you predict what numbers you might expect?
[King:] Well, it’s difficult to say what numbers we will end up with. We are going to escalate it as we move. We plan to start off with a basic three thousand people. Two hundred people from each of these areas will be mobilized, trained in the discipline of nonviolence and the whole idea of jail without bail, and enlightened on everything that we are seeking to do on this question of jobs and income.

[Question:] What will they [be doing?]?
[King:] Now these three thousand people will be a core group but that’s just the beginning. We are going right through various processes until we culminate with a massive move on Washington and that will go way up into the thousands. So it starts out with the three thousand moving on up.

[Question:] What will this initial group do exactly in the way of demonstrations?
[King:] We will choose certain target areas or targets in Washington and demonstrate around them. If we are driven away, we will continue to go back. But as far as naming these targets [tape interrupted][. . .] as in federal buildings and the Congress of the United States itself.

[Question:] Might they include the White House?
[King:] Oh this is a very great possibility, yes.

Press conference announcing the Poor People's Campaign, 4 December 1967

He was ready for the violence the United States Government has shown in the past to People's Movements.

[Question:] You had resistance in Birmingham and also in Selma. Do you expect resistance in Washington and if so, what type?

[King:] Well I’m sure with the various methods that they are now using to break up demonstrations that we’ll face some of that, I imagine. We don’t know what will happen. They may try to run us out, they did it with the bonus marches you remember years ago. The army may try to run us out. We are prepared for any of this kind of resistance. We don’t go in with the feeling that there won’t be an attempt to block it because we will be engaging in civil disobedience, there’s no doubt about that.

Dr. King was assassinated while he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers:
On February 12, 1968 — 40 years ago — 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., decided that enough was enough. They went on strike to force the city to recognize their union, AFSCME Local 1733. The walkout capped a long history of mistreatment and disrespect amid shameful working conditions.

The strike was a defining moment for the modern labor and civil rights movements. Officially, the men were after rights and raises, but the signs they carried made clear that their struggle was for much more — dignity and respect.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to support the striking workers. The evening of April 3, he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a packed room of strikers and supporters. The next day, he was assassinated.

AFSCME, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike
On a sunny day in May 1968, thousands of citizens took to the streets in Greensboro, North Carolina demanding economic justice for all. Known as The Poor People's Campaign, the movement originated in Mississippi and spread across the country until the assassination of Martin Luther King. Greensboro's peaceful demonstration was a spirited event. A racially mixed crowd (as poverty is color-blind) sang, clapped, and marched through the streets of the Deep South. In a show of unity, some of the demonstrators formed circles, interlocked their arms and sang songs of freedom. Unfortunately, this momentous event was recorded without sound, so the film is silent.
The Poor People Campaign went to Washington and set up Resurrection City, but without Dr. King, it was not successful in meeting his goals.
After King’s assassination in April 1968, SCLC decided to go on with the campaign under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy, SCLC’s new president. On Mother’s Day, 12 May 1968, thousands of women, led by Coretta Scott King, formed the first wave of demonstrators. The following day, Resurrection City, a temporary settlement of tents and shacks, was built on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Braving rain, mud, and summer heat, protesters stayed for over a month. Demonstrators made daily pilgrimages to various federal agencies to protest and demand economic justice.

Mid-way through the campaign, Robert Kennedy, whose wife had attended the Mother’s Day opening of Resurrection City, was assassinated. Out of respect for the campaign, his funeral procession passed through Resurrection City.

The Department of the Interior forced Resurrection City to close on 24 June 1968, after the permit to use park land expired.

King Encyclopedia

In his Letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King explained one of his deepest beliefs, a belief that led, inexorably, to the second phase of the civil rights movement:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Letter from the Birmingham Jail

That's the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., you won't see on TV.  That's the real Dr. King, an activist who fought injustice wherever he saw it, and gave his life in that struggle.  There can be  no "Hallmark Cards" version of Dr. King, so long as people testify to the truths he lived.

Update I: From Deoliver 47 [now Denise Oliver Velez], who was there in 1968:

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