MLK’s Hopes for the Poor: A Dream America Has Yet to Realize

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When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life was cut short in the spring of 1968, he was in the midst of planning, along with other civil rights leaders, the Poor People’s Campaign. The idea was for impoverished Americans across the nation to gather in Washington, DC and call on Congress to help them get jobs, health care, better housing and higher pay.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) was the newly named leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and one of the youngest of the featured speakers at the March on Washington. In this clip, Lewis talks about the last time he saw King as he prepared for the Poor People’s Campaign, but begins by talking about the “uncalled for” criticisms of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Watch Bill’s complete interview with Lewis.

Just weeks ahead of his death, King addressed a group of black sanitation workers, who were striking in Memphis, following years of poor treatment, discrimination and dangerous working conditions. Then, as now, most of the poor of working age had jobs, but, as King puts it: “they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” In 1968, 25 million people — nearly 13 percent of the population — were living below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau. (In 2013, 45.3 million people — 14.5 percent were below the poverty level.) In this clip, theologian James Cone and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch talk about how King came to focus on the fate of America’s poor.

Watch Bill’s full interview with Cone and Branch.

Baldemar Velásquez, an internationally recognized leader in the farmworker and immigrant rights movements, worked with King in planning the Poor People’s Campaign. Here, he reflects on how King’s strategy for taking on the largest economic organizations in America — as well as politicians in Washington, DC — was routed in one single sentence. It’s a principle Velásquez says he has continued to employ throughout his esteemed career.

Watch Bill’s full interview with Velásquez.


Video: Criticisms of “I Have a Dream”

BILL MOYERS: Some critics said after the “I Have a Dream” speech that it was candy-coated, and appeasement to white America. Too much optimism, too much love. Do you remember that? The criticisms of his speech?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: The criticism was uncalled for. Dr. King measured the moment. He measured the climate, the environment.

He was trying through his message to bring us all together as one people, as one family, as one house, the American house, the world house. And there was room. There was a place for all Americans. It was not just black Americans. White Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, women, men, everybody.

BILL MOYERS: But we have largely forgotten that in the beginning, his words were stinging as they spoke about reality.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check […] It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation America has given the Negro people a bad check. A check which has come backed marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

BILL MOYERS: John Lewis, why has that part of his speech not joined the collective memory of the country?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I don’t know. I really don’t know. And it’s so troublesome. I think that’s one of the most brilliant and most powerful parts of that speech, really. I think sometimes we get caught up in the rhetoric. There’s not anything wrong with rhetoric or poetry but that’s the essence. That is the body. That is the soul of that speech, really.

This man’s life is not just civil rights or civil liberty, but he was concerned about hunger, poverty. And he died in Memphis trying to deal with the whole question of the wages. Economic conditions.

The last time I saw him was a meeting in Atlanta. He was preparing for the Poor People’s Campaign. He had brought together low-income African American, low-income whites, Latinos, and Asian and Native Americans together to talk about going to Washington to do something about poverty.

BILL MOYERS: This was the spring of 1968, not long before he was killed.


BILL MOYERS: Still, he was harkening back to that universal vision of egalitarian America that you all presented that day here in 1963.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: That’s what the march was all about. We said “jobs,” what jobs means, improving your conditions. Jobs, maybe you can do something about sending your child to school to get a great education. Maybe you could– they would get healthcare. Food and shelter is the basic necessity of life. That’s what it was all about.

Video: MLKs Fight for Higher Wages

BILL MOYERS: Let’s listen again to Dr. King, from the speech he made to those striking sanitation workers in Memphis just weeks before he was shot to death. What he said about poverty still rings true.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen. And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.

BILL MOYERS: Could anything be more current right now?

TAYLOR BRANCH: No. It’s hard to imagine, and of course, it’s chilling to think what the distribution of wealth was when he made that indictment compared to what it is now. It is much more skewed now than it was then and it was bad then.

So, you really get a sense of King’s power. I would only caution that we not assume that he undertook these issues of poverty only late in his career. It was part of his message all along. Certainly, if you look at Nobel Prize lecture in 1964, he says, we are — the world is seeing the widest liberation in human history, not just in the United States but around the world.

And we cannot lose this opportunity to apply its nonviolent power to the triple scourge of race, war, and poverty, what he called violence of the flesh and violence of the spirit. This was a very, very broad vision early on. It’s only at the end of his career that he’s making witness on that because he sees his time limited and he wants to leave that witness.

He made a wonderful quote when he was arguing with his staff about doing the Poor People’s Campaign and most of them didn’t want to do it. He quoted something saying, ‘At times, you must finish with what you have, even if it’s only a little.’

BILL MOYERS: You remind that the famous March on Washington five years earlier in 1963 wasn’t called the March on Washington. It was a march for jobs–

JAMES CONE: Jobs and freedom.

BILL MOYERS: –and freedom. Which goes back to his early concern, as you say.

JAMES CONE: Actually, you know, King grew up, he was a child during the Depression and he saw relief lines, even as a young man, and he was disturbed about that. He came from a middle-class family, but he was disturbed about it then. And even when he got ready to go the Crozer Theological Seminary out of Morehouse, when they asked him why he wanted to go into ministry, he connected it with helping people, helping them deal with hurt and pain.

So, it’s not new for King. King has always been concerned about that. I think it becomes sharp for him at the end because he’s accomplished civil rights, and the voting rights, and now he sees that it’s still, he sees the cities burning.


JAMES CONE: And he wants to provide an alternative to riots.

BILL MOYERS: I want to play you an excerpt of the speech he delivered, one year to the day before he was killed, at Riverside Church here in New York City.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

BILL MOYERS: A radical revolution of values.

TAYLOR BRANCH: The revolution in values is to see people first, to see Lazarus at the gate and not pass them by. So, I think the revolution in values is Christian and it’s democratic, but it starts with people. They have equal souls and equal votes and we are very stubborn, human nature, about denying that and wanting to see anything but.

BILL MOYERS: Was it theological?

JAMES CONE: Oh, yes. Because people are created in the image of God. If you’re created in the image of God, you can’t treat people like things. If we are interconnected with each other, we can’t treat each other like things. If America is concerned with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you can’t have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if you’re treating others as things.

BILL MOYERS: So, what was the turning point that moved him from an understanding of what you’re talking about to an actual agenda of trying to achieve it?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, I think part of it is a natural progression. If you are totally invisible, you’re not even up to the level of a thing yet. The bus boycott, the sit-ins, the freedom rides, getting the right to vote, if you’re not a citizen, you’re not even up to the table where you can start dealing with these issues.

To me, Martin Luther King saw race as the gateway. If you can deal with race and the fundamental denial of common humanity through race, then it opens up possibilities which I think happened in history.

And finally, toward the end of his career, he said, we have an opportunity. Now that we are learning, at least the beginnings of treating each other as equal citizens to really tackle what he called the eternal scourge of racism, poverty, and war.

JAMES CONE: His fight against poverty was multiracial. He wasn’t just focused with black people. Well, you can’t get that multiracial fight against poverty unless first black people are regarded as persons. So, civil rights, that earlier part, is, as Taylor was saying, black people coming to the table. So, after they get to the table, if you’re going to deal with poverty, it spreads across races. So, King was concerned about a multiracial movement against poverty because that’s what the Poor People’s Campaign was about.

Video: Remembering MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign

BILL MOYERS: It seems to me you’ve not only listened to Jesus, you’ve also listened to Martin Luther King. You remember he said, “When you impede the rich man’s ability to make money, anything is negotiable.”

BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ:I think this has been one of the cornerstones of our thinking in every campaign we design. It’s the only time I’ve ever was with Dr. King in that winter of ’68, I believe. And I got an invitation to come to Atlanta and help plan the Poor People’s Campaign. This was very early in my organizing career. And I went to Atlanta and got to meet some of the other Latino leaders and Indian leaders that he brought in for the planning.

And I, being innocent not knowing that history was before my very eyes– so that afternoon, when I was there, it was like 3:30 in the afternoon. And Dr. King comes in with a column of ministers with Ralph Abernathy on one side and Andy Young on the other side and a young Jesse Jackson in tow. And he was deciding in this Poor People’s Campaign that the question of inequity in America was not just Black– that it was a class issue. It wasn’t just a Black issue. To us, that was important. The discussion came to that question about how do we as poor people, we’re talking about organizing a poor people’s campaign to take on the powers in Washington, the monolithic economic institutions of our country to bring equity to the poor people in this country. That how do we as poor people who have nothing– who don’t have the money and the power and the politicians in our hip pocket compel the world’s largest, the richest people to sit down and talk to us? And that was the response. That I remember it was so burned into my brain that “When you impede the rich man’s ability to make money, anything is negotiable.” And we have followed that principle and all the campaigns we’ve designed. And we keep looking until we find it.

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