A Day to Question the Whole of Society: Continuing Dr. King’s Journey from Civil Rights to Human Rights

Today we remember the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  His personal story is tightly interwoven with the story of the Civil Rights Movement half a century ago.  As such, today we are also celebrating Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, W.E.B. Du Bois, Medgar Evers, James Farmer, James Forman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Marian Kramer, John Lewis, the Little Rock Nine, Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Wiley, Malcolm X and the hundreds of thousands of others who dedicated their lives, hopes and dreams to a vision of society grounded in genuine equality.  

Every year many of us also ask that we take note that the story of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement has been somewhat altered and unforgivably narrowed.  The Dr. King who unfailingly challenged all the flaws and abuses of the political systems of his day is not often enough invoked by our political leaders and official guardians of our national story.  He challenged our economic structure noting that “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial.  It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” (“Beyond Vietnam,” April 1967)   He also rejected militarism altogether, recognizing it as a dire threat to his vision.

He said we must raise questions about why there were “poor people in America,” the economic system and a broader distribution of wealth.  Indeed that we must raise “questions about the whole society,” in order to fight for a “socially conscious democracy which recognizes the truths of individualism and collectivism.” (The World House, 1967This is what Dr. King meant when he said “we have moved from the era of civil rights to an era of human rights.” (Report to SCLC Staff, May 1967)

The movement Dr. King helped represent was far reaching and visionary and demanded more than just a seat at a structurally unsound table that sags under the weight of injustice and inequity.  In the lead up to the Poor People’s Campaign, he called for an additional 30 billion dollar anti-poverty program (that would translate into asking for almost an additional 200 billion in today’s dollars), full employment, guaranteed income and half a million new affordable housing units each year.  These calls echoed Philip Randolph’s Freedom Budget, which also demanded public works programs to create jobs and provide public goods and services, and the bold calls from the National Welfare Rights Union Organization for a universal guaranteed income of more than double the poverty rate.   

We have spent the last half century moving away from Dr. King’s egalitarian vision of society.  Instead of half a million more affordable housing units a year, we have seen continuous disinvestment in affordable housing for 30 years.  We have somehow even managed to produce empty homes and homeless people side by side, preferring it seems to let homes deteriorate and rot rather than make them affordable.   Congress is having a debate about decreasing food stamps as hunger increases, and simply extending unemployment benefits in an economic crisis has become highly disputed terrain.  We seem more committed to creating an American nightmare than a dream.  

And yet the media has of late been bringing attention to the fact that “we are in the midst of a rare political moment.  Politicians and the media are actually paying attention to poverty” and notes that most people in the United States want to see the government address poverty.  Paul Krugman recently wrote that “suddenly it’s ok, even mandatory, for politicians with national ambitions to talk about helping the poor.”  But then proceeds to attack only the Republican party without bringing the Democrats to task for creating what he acknowledges is an inadequate and patchwork system of social protections.  The discussion is suddenly viable because, as Robert Reich writes, “poverty is now a condition that almost anyone can fall into.”   Reading the slew of articles on the new discussion on poverty one might come away with the impression that if we just thinned the ranks of the poor a bit and “helped” alleviate the worst of their poverty, we would achieve an acceptable level of misery and abuse.  This is a far cry from ensuring economic and social rights for all and meeting people's fundamental needs.

The Civil Rights Movement was not about “helping the poor.”  The second phase of the Civil Rights Movement was about the leadership of the poor in abolishing poverty.  It was a movement seeking to ask hard questions and find honest answers to our stated commitment to equality and human rights. In short, it was a movement for economic and social rights.  And the Civil Rights Movement is not over.  It is not past, nor has it died.  It is alive in efforts across the country of thousands of people still working to meet the challenges of our day.  Its leaders are sadly still miles away from our country's capital, but they are with us.   They are leading the growing call by workers’ centers and community organizations for health care as a human right and public good without the corrosive effects of a profit-seeking health care industry.  They are building the demand to almost double wages of the lowest wage workers in campaigns led by groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Fast Food Forward.  They are successfully demanding accountability for public subsidies, such as the victory by the Workers Defense Project in Austin.  They are taking over homes and giving them to homeless people in efforts such as the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and Occupy our Homes.  All these efforts, and many more, embody Dr. King’s idea that we have moved from an era of civil rights to an era of human rights.  We still believe in the dream, the whole dream.  And people in the United States are learning to dream big once again.