Most people know Martin Luther King Jr. for his revolutionary civil rights activism. During the 1950s and 60s he became a guiding voice for the segregated, minority groups of America, and his non-violent movements for racial equality helped to bring justice to millions and millions of overlooked Americans.
As a civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. organized peaceful protests, traveled the country to speak about prejudice, and proposed new legislation. He was involved in the most prominent events of the Civil Rights Movement, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. These were just a few of his achievements in his fight for social equality. But what many forget, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was his campaign against economic injustice.
What Martin Luther King Jr. Did for Us
Martin Luther King Jr. became a civil rights activist early on in his career. The first noted activity in which he was involved was in 1955, a year after he was called as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama: the Montgomery bus boycott. This year-long campaign ended segregation on Montgomery public buses and gave King a national presence.
In the years that followed, he helped found and lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); organized the 1963 nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama; and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington to an estimated 250,000 attendees. Raising awareness for African-American rights through non-violent civil disobedience became his life’s work, and made him the best-known civil rights figure of his time.
Then, during his final years before being assassinated in 1968, he spearheaded campaigns against America’s role in the Vietnam War and its drain on our nation’s social welfare resources. Naming the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” he highlighted the economic inequality associated with the war and the country’s need for moral change. In 1967, he said:
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.’”
At the time of his death, his plan was to begin a national occupation of Washington, D.C. called the Poor People’s Campaign. His aim was to address further economic injustice issues, such as poverty, capitalism, and materialism.
The Importance of Pursuing Justice for All
Martin Luther King Jr. helped to make changes that nobody had previously thought possible, and that have lived long after his death. However, we are still in the midst of a work-in-progress.
“I Have a Dream” shared Martin King Jr.’s hopes for America’s future, but racial inequality prevails throughout the country. His final effort for the Poor People’s Campaign and against the Vietnam war came up against more controversy and doubt. Baynard Rustin, King’s advisor, resigned, believing that the goals of the march were unachievable. Even today, much of this is still true, as millions of Americans are still stuck below the poverty line due to inequality. But King’s philosophies can still be applied to the broader economic problems we see today.
Just the fact that there are still over 40 million people living in poverty in the U.S. – one of the richest countries in the world – is proof of its lack of economic equality. Indeed, much of this imbalance is allowed to continue largely because of corrupt economic decisions, aggressive government lobbying, exploitation, lack of social responsibility, and the poorly enforced regulation of it all.
At the center of this socio-economic system, and immediately affecting the nation’s consumers, is the control of dishonest corporations. Healthcare institutions, for example, have been under scrutiny in recent years for caring more about profits than patient safety. King once famously said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.” Now, medical error – or preventable and damaging mistakes caused by doctors’ negligence – is 1 of the nation’s leading causes of death.
Companies in certain industries, too, have behaved unjustly towards their employees. With revenue top of mind, many other companies knowingly hide dangers associated with high-risk occupations. This has kept exposure to toxic substances, like asbestos, for example, a secret, leading to lethal conditions such as mesothelioma.
This is all to say that, as well as social inequality, the structural injustice of economic power being the source of political power as well, is what Martin Luther King Jr. lobbied passionately against. Although it was only witnessed for a short time, he was a strong, life-long opponent of American capitalism.
How to Move Forward
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an important time to celebrate the importance of justice for American people of all ages, cultures, colors, and backgrounds. But he would also want us to continue his unfinished work towards giving workers and consumers their say in safety and justice.
Today, more than ever, it’s crucial to give citizens the right to advocate for and govern their own safe living and working conditions, and to build systems based on cooperation and valuing people over profits.
And to do this?
“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society,” King said, through “a little change here and a little change there, but now I feel differently. You have to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
Let us honor Martin Luther King Jr.; and let us promote the values of justice, freedom, and equality for all.