Before he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what was to be the last public address of his life to a crowd of sanitation workers, who were about to strike for a living wage. On Wednesday — the 50th anniversary of King’s death — we discussed his legacy and economic justice.
On Point guest host Jennifer Glasse spoke with Rev. Dr. William Barber II, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign; Charles McKinney, history professor and Chair of Africana Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis; and Michael Honey, professor of labor history and Martin Luther King studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. The highlights below have been lightly edited for clarity.
On how contemporary politics handle the issue of poverty
Rev. Dr. William Barber II: In some ways, we’ve moved forward and we’re thankful for that. But in other ways we’ve made it worse. We have more poor people in this country now than in ‘68, 140 million people are poor or working poor. That’s 43 percent of the nation. And we are having elections where there is no discussion of poverty. Only the middle class and the military. That’s a tragic reality.
On the mood in Memphis on the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination
Charles McKinney: The city of Memphis has been organizing on a number of levels to prepare for this day. The city has been trying to figure out how to make sense and make meaning of this commemoration, what to focus on, what to emphasize, what to deemphasize. Activists have been doing the same thing with an eye towards highlighting some of the persistent areas and challenges that we still have yet to face and that we’re still struggling with here.
Michael Honey: People are using what I call the bonds of memory of 1968 to energize and organize and get people out to the polls to vote the reactionary forces in Congress out of power as much as possible.
On what King would make of today’s Memphis
McKinney: I think if he came back to Memphis, he would observe some conditions that are in many ways largely unchanged from April of 1968. African-Americans in Memphis make 50 percent of what white Americans make. He would notice a rigidly segregated school system that is segregated by race and class. He would be all too familiar with the high levels of police surveillance foisted upon activists and other Americans. So there’s a number of things that he would find disappointingly familiar about about Memphis. That said, I would like to think he would take heart in some of the gains — in terms of the expansion of the middle class, in terms of the expansion of black political power and economic power. But it’s not enough.
On what King would make of the national political climate since 1968
Honey: He’d be a severe critic, certainly, of the current administration, but also of most of the administrations that we have had. He’s talked about the right wing coalition that was building in 1968, and I think it’s partly responsible for his death. He was talking about the military industrial complex, which has only expanded…He would be aghast and feel abhorrent of this direction. And then the anti-labor anti union thrust of right-to-work laws in 28 states now — that used to be confined mainly to the South — which take away a lot of the gains that the Memphis sanitation workers made in 1968, when they fought a strike for two months to get the right to a contract and dues deduction so that they could have an effective union.
On how activists can carry on King’s legacy
McKinney: As a historian of the civil rights movement, it’s one of the great ‘What if?’ questions, if King had not been killed in April 1968 in our city…What if he can play continue to play that role, as being the connective tissue between so many different constituencies on the left and the middle and the right? And so I’m hopeful that there are a number of individuals — Rev. Barber certainly being one of them — who are in a position to get a national, mass-based effort. Rev. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign, these folks are doing it right.
Charles McKinney, professor of History and Chair of Africana Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis and co-editor of “An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee.” (@kmt188)
Michael Honey, Haley Professor in Humanities and founding faculty member at the University of Washington Tacoma, where he teaches African-American and labor history and Martin Luther King Studies. Author of “To The Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice.”
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival. (@RevDrBarber)
From The Reading List:
New Yorker: Watch Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech
The Guardian: Martin Luther King’s Forgotten Legacy? His Fight For Economic Justice — “King early on described himself as a ‘profound advocate of the social gospel’ who decried a capitalist system that put profits and property rights ahead of basic human rights. Beyond his dream of civil and voting rights lay a demand that every person have adequate food, education, housing, a decent job and income.”
Excerpt of “An Unseen Light”:
Fifty years ago today, in Memphis, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. He was in Memphis to strike with sanitation workers, who demanded a living wage. In his last speech, King warned “the whole world is doomed” if something isn’t done to “bring the colored peoples of the world out of their” poverty. Half a century later, poverty still plagues America. King’s economic message is now carried by a new generation, making their voices heard.
This hour, On Point: Voices from Memphis as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr.