Martin Luther King's unfinished revolution

January 18, 2016

Poor People's March at Lafayette Park on June 18, 1968, in Washington, DC. Photo: Kairos.

On the third Monday of January, the US marks Martin Luther King Day with a federal holiday celebrating his contribution to the civil rights struggle.

As the US marks the 86th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (on January 15), we are reminded of our responsibility to take up the unfinished business of the movement he was a part of: the movement for genuine equality, complete democracy and the full realisation of every human being's right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In King's short lifetime, that movement had evolved through many stages, and in his last years he saw the need to move into yet another new phase. At a Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat in May 1967, just a year before his assassination, he said: “I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights ...

“[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last 12 years we have been in a reform movement ... That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution...

“In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.”

On December 4, 1967, King announced plans for a Poor People's Campaign and called for the nation to take dramatic steps to end poverty. The idea was to bring together the poor from across the United States – people from every region of the country; living in big cities, small towns, and rural areas; white, Black, Latino, and indigenous people – to unite a force that “could be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life”.

A plan went forward for massive non-violent civil disobedience in Washington, DC, but in the wake of King's assassination the campaign fell far short of that powerful vision. The US government, consumed by its war in Vietnam, did not heed the call from King and the poor people who traveled to Washington in the spring of 1968.

Today, nearly 50 years later, King's call for a “non-violent army”, a “freedom church” of the poor united across colour lines and other lines of division is just as pressing, if not more so.

We are experiencing unprecedented poverty in the midst of plenty and unnecessary abandonment in spite of unheard abundance. According to official data, at least 46.5 million people, including one out of every five children, are living in poverty – an increase of more than 9 million since 2008. Another 97.3 million people are officially designated as low income.

Taken together, this means that nearly half the population is poor or low income. At the same time, racial and gender injustice remain as deep as ever, and are exacerbated in many ways by the ongoing crises we face.

In the midst of this, we are fighting for our lives, our rights and our deepest values. We are organising a growing resistance, fighting on the many fronts of this struggle, including for good affordable homes, water, nutritious food, health and education; for racial, gender and LGBTQ justice; for a humane immigration system and an end to mass incarceration; for living wages and good jobs; and for a sustainable environment.

We experience the power and joy of these campaigns, celebrating and drawing inspiration from the gains of these struggles. Yet we are also painfully aware of the limitations of our victories as overall conditions continue to worsen and inequality and poverty continue to grow.

There is a growing need and yearning to connect these often isolated battles and begin creating a broader and deeper social movement: a movement with the power and vision to take on not just the rotten fruits of poverty, inequality and oppression, but the national and global systems and structures that produce them. This is the kind of movement that King envisioned in his last years.

The poor and dispossessed have come to embody all the major injustices of our time. This gives us the ability to provide a rallying point for an even broader and more powerful social movement.

Far from putting aside the immediate problems we are facing and struggles we are waging, such a movement would strengthen our different struggles by recognising them as interconnected, inseparable and central to the fight to end poverty and create a moral and just society.

The leading role of the poor in these struggles is critical to building this movement. History teaches us that a successful movement's essential first step is uniting those most affected by the problem.

History has also shown that powerful social movements require the involvement and support of all sectors with an interest in a radically different society. This means nearly everyone.

A recent study measuring “economic insecurity” found that four out of five people living in the US live in danger of poverty or unemployment at some point in their lifetime. A key objective of building the unity and power of the poor is to help those who feel they are still in the “middle class” to realise their common interest in the fight to end poverty.

This task is all the more crucial as the wealthy attempt to win the same battle by turning those who have little against those who have even less. But the scale, extent and endurance of the economic crisis has made this long standing game harder for them to win.

The permanent crisis has raised the most serious questions about the prevailing ideological orthodoxies which for too long have defined what is “realistically” possible in terms of social change. And even those who feel economically secure can see that mass poverty and economic hardship amid such wealth and productive power is an obscene violation our most sacred values.

This is why King called for “a revolution of values” and put forward not just a new political vision for a society, but a moral one, in which people are not treated as commodities to be thrown away, but as precious brothers and sisters.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Poor People's Campaign that King saw as the first step towards the radical restructuring of American society. The conditions of poverty, inequality and injustice we face today make necessary a genuine commemoration of King's life and example and a continuation of his unfinished revolution through the building of a new Poor People's Campaign for today.

We who are making this call know that it must be done thoughtfully, carefully and inclusively. Because it is urgent, we have to start now. And because we are taking this up together, we can and we will succeed.

[Reposted from TeleSUR English. Daniel Jones is the Communications Coordinator for Kairos: The Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and a member of Put People First!]

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