King once recalled a conversation he’d had on a plane with a white man who told him that black people needed to lift themselves by their own bootstraps and advance through individual initiative. “It is a cruel jest,” King replied, “to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Few black people received the kind of government support—the New Deal’s low-interest home loans, the homesteads and land-grant colleges and subsidies, the federal land acquisitions and military protection for railroad and oil magnates in the West—that had boosted some immigrants into the ranks of the middle and upper classes.
Then too, Africans didn’t come to America looking for prosperity, as Ben Carson, the black Republican who heads up the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Trump, ludicrously suggested recently. Rather, they were ripped from their freedom in Africa to work as slaves in America. “My grandfather and my great-grandfather” helped build the wealth of this nation as slaves and sharecroppers, King said, but ended up in poverty. In contrast to the stereotypical “self-made man,” King spoke of a man unjustly kept in prison for years: “And you just go up to him and say, ‘Now you are free,’ but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or get on his feet again in life. Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this. And yet, this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man.”
Remarkably, given the brutality that people had faced in the civil-rights struggle, King warned that the second phase of the freedom movement would be even harder. “It is much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an annual income,” he said, and the resistance from capitalist elites as well as Southern sheriffs would be much worse. Yet King insisted that the country needed a moral revolution that would “raise certain basic questions about the whole society.” Like Malcolm X, he saw the agenda for organizing as global and revolutionary.
King had spoken out sharply against the Vietnam War and wasteful military spending but went even further, criticizing capitalism itself. He told his congregation at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church that a system that put the wealth of a few ahead of a decent life for the many needed fundamental transformation. He envisioned the Poor People’s Campaign as a way to gather the sick, the hungry, and the destitute in a shantytown in the nation’s capital to “demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.”
In the 50 years since King’s death, the media and most historians have cast the Poor People’s Campaign as a failure, and Memphis has come to be remembered primarily as the site of his tragic assassination. Instead, as the people taking up the struggles to end poverty and create a living wage today point out, we should embrace King’s final effort as a necessary turn that we can emulate. In the Poor People’s Campaign, dispossessed people learned skills and crossed cultural boundaries, beginning a fight for economic justice that many continued for the rest of their lives.