There has been a broad based effort by America’s established institutions to sanitize Martin Luther King and the history of the civil rights movement. In their revisionist history the edge has been taken off MLK in favor of a benign truth teller who apparently gave some great speeches and everyone just changed their mind. This is probably why so many are confused when they learn of the FBI’s relentless attempt to destroy Martin Luther King and his family. It was not just the Klan, the Washington Establishment despised King and when Lyndon Johnson learned of King’s speech on the Vietnam War LBJ pulled King’s security detail in retaliation, a move that would later lead to King standing unguarded on an exposed balcony in the middle of turbulent Memphis.
Think Obama is a socialist? Wrong. But guess who was? Martin Luther King whose final act was leading the Poor People’s Campaign that advocated for a guaranteed annual income, government commitment to full employment, and ratification of an “economic bill of rights.” You probably did not know that if all you knew about King is what you learned in public school – there’s a reason for that.
While many of the elite begrudgingly accepted the need to address the civil rights movement, especially with internal instigators like Chief Justice Earl Warren essentially forcing their hand, they were not prepared to accept changes to the economic system – that was a bridge too far. Most of the elite were in their high positions precisely because they or their families had triumphed under the current economic system and were fundamentally concerned with augmenting or at least securing their economic power. To their mind that was the point of the Cold War, a preservation of status within the Western bloc now lead by America. Hell if they would give that up too.
It harkens back to one of the great scenes from Assault At West Point where Daniel Chamberlain (played by Sam Waterston), previously an abolitionist, tells his client Johnson Whittaker (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who is one of the first black cadets at West Point and is being court-martialed under dubious circumstances “I wanted you to be free not equal!”
Yet if King could see America now, I believe that he would be disappointed, and feel that his work was nowhere near done. He dreamed of a nation in which his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But what we actually became is a nation that judges people not by the color of their skin — or at least not as much as in the past — but by the size of their paychecks. And in America, more than in most other wealthy nations, the size of your paycheck is strongly correlated with the size of your father’s paycheck.
Goodbye Jim Crow, hello class system.
Given none of the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign have yet been achieved Krugman’s suspicion is more than reasonable. So what would MLK be doing now?
Martin Luther King would be Occupying. Drawing attention to America’s historic wealth inequality and lack of economic opportunity, just as he did before he was assassinated. Only now America is even more unequal and opportunities even fewer. From Krugman again:
The Times recently reported on a well-established finding that still surprises many Americans when they hear about it: although we still see ourselves as the land of opportunity, we actually have less intergenerational economic mobility than other advanced nations. That is, the chances that someone born into a low-income family will end up with high income, or vice versa, are significantly lower here than in Canada or Europe.
The American Dream is more likely in Europe? The land of serfdom and poverty that many Americans fled in previous times is now more American than America? Unacceptable!
MLK would be Occupying Wall Street for economic opportunity and social justice and so should you.