MLK’s Radical Alternative to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty
An “Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged"
Arguably, although the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a remarkable achievement of the black insurgency, the voting issue was still unresolved and the urban uprisings that erupted during the summer of 1964 in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other northern cities (heralding the widespread national civil disorders that would culminate with the outbreaks of sorrow following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968) placed economic issues and the policing of the poor at the forefront.
Young African Americans revolted in wrath against their conditions, which, despite legislative civil rights progress, had not been substantially altered. The newly adopted antidiscrimination Title VII policies (which established a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity), yet to be enforced, could not adequately right structural wrongs, particularly with respect to employment and housing. The black urban poor, whose destitution was worsened by discriminatory policing, laid bare “the violence of poverty” and the alienation of those rendered invisible, voiceless, and utterly powerless. King understood that what the nation confronted was a poor people’s insurrection.
In a November 1964 editorial entitled “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast,” King called on President Lyndon Johnson to fulfill his obligations: “Despite new laws, little has changed in [the Negro’s] life in the ghettos. The Negro is still the poorest American walled in by color and poverty. The law pronounces him equal, abstractly, but his conditions of life are still far from equal to those of other Americans.” King had not lived the Chicago experience yet, but he already grasped the political economy of the northern ghettoes, clearly pointing out that the Civil Rights Act was incapable of addressing “the magnitude” of joblessness and the wretched housing conditions of the poor. Unblurred by the Civil Rights Act victory, he conceived the end of de jure segregation as the first step in a grander emancipation design which would address the structural side of inequality. Beyond the ongoing fight to abolish segregation, to secure voting rights, and to enforce antidiscrimination provisions, economic and class issues were de facto King’s prime concern.
This call for economic justice was nothing new to the White House. Up to 1964, the civil rights struggle mainly concentrated on the dismantling of Jim Crow laws and attitudes in the South, and questions of citizenship and segregation were put to the front. However, if most civil rights organizations shared a similar race-centered agenda, it was complemented by a commitment to economic equity and job opportunities.
Northern organizations such as the NAACP, the Urban League, and CORE had consistently pushed for fair employment practices and economic uplift. They helped farmers and factory workers to get better job opportunities, through financing or training. Socialist leaders like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and, later, Martin Luther King Jr. had been aware since the early civil rights movement that economic progress was the sine qua non for substantial civil rights advances. No real enfranchisement could be reached without economic gain. But no economic gain was within reach in the Jim Crow framework. Besides, more than any programs, the real connection between civil rights organizations and the poor lay in the socioeconomic condition of the members of these organizations who disproportionately experienced poverty and economic disempowerment.
John Lewis, who presided over SNCC’s strong engagements on behalf of the southern poor, would later clarify that “people have said that the civil rights movement was a middle-class movement. . . . But, a lot of the people that made up the rank and file of that movement, the people that got arrested and went to jail, the people that participated in the marches, that stood in that immovable line, they were dirt poor.”
The 1963 March on Washington, for “Jobs and Freedom,” was in this regard a pivotal moment. Despite the sanitized image of a gathering aimed at dismantling Jim Crow and at reaching national reconciliation, the main goal of this labor-organized and socialist-inspired demonstration was to shed a harsh light on “the economic subordination of the Negro” (in 1963, black workers earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by whites) and to advance a universal “broad and fundamental program for economic justice.”
The brainchild of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, both social democrats, the demonstration demanded not only the desegregation of schools and public accommodations in the South but, on an even grander scale, a “massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—in meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages,” which entailed minimum wage and labor protections. Full employment was to be reached through structural reforms: a two-dollar minimum wage (which entailed a raise of 85 cents, from the prevailing $1.15), the broadening of the Fair Labor Standards Act and a Federal Fair Employment Practices Act were demanded by marchers, who sought to be a “living petition.” Their plea for genuine equality, economic as much as social, was only partially satisfied by the landmark vote obtained a year later. It is also because the 1963 marchers were not fully heard that King labored to have another gathering of massive proportions in Washington, preceded by a dramatic journey toward its Mall. It would be more radical, more disruptive, and more explicitly class-based.
The common argument claims that the years 1964 and 1965 were a critical juncture in the history of the civil rights movement, for they marked the end of a consensual period and the dawning of protestors’ radicalization. But the initial shift, to which activists responded, was President Johnson’s fading sense of commitment to racial equality. Rendering African Americans free was a leap of unprecedented proportions and Johnson reasoned that he had done enough. Genuine equality would have to fall on someone else’s shoulders.
The Democratic president felt as did most liberals that the “race question” had been somewhat resolved and Johnson’s skewed diagnosis propelled him to refocus his priorities. Although liberal Democrats in Congress had the votes necessary to pass his bills on domestic policies, he made sure he would not fall prey to conservatives’ assaults, which led him to water down his egalitarian agenda and instead to engage in an anticommunism battle in Vietnam. Before the war became an irreconcilable bone of contention between Johnson and King, the president’s domestic policies or lack thereof in the realm of economic justice were subjected to critical scrutiny. The urban uprising added fuel to a simmering political detachment that contrasted with the ambitious agenda that initially prevailed.
Thus, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign cannot be understood without being traced back to 1964. That year, King articulated for the first time the core theme of the later PPC: an “Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” whose overarching goal was to eradicate poverty and establish the notion of social citizenship. Beyond a commitment to full employment, the demand for an unconditional, non-withdrawable income paid to every individual as a right of citizenship was the antipoverty measure King pushed the most forcefully.
A few months afterward, Johnson launched his War on Poverty, seemingly responding to civil rights’ leaders demands for economic justice. If he did not take King’s suggestions into account, he seemed to have heard his call for a GI Bill-inspired legislation to tackle inequality, and as well, the proposal from National Urban League president Whitney Young Jr. to launch another domestic Marshall Plan.
It might then seem paradoxical that King called for a massive attack on structural inequality and envisioned a Poor People’s Campaign exactly when the War on Poverty, the most impressive social welfare program since the New Deal, was being rolled out. But precisely because King had himself appropriated antipoverty activists’ experiences and inherited a long social democratic tradition, he came to understand that even well-intended liberal policy makers would not spontaneously tackle the structural roots of racial inequality and class exploitation.
Arguably, the PPC was bolstered by the disappointing outcome of Johnson’s War on Poverty. With the Poor People’s Campaign, King sought to achieve the core components of a real antipoverty policy: a true empowerment of the poor and massive structural reforms that were critically absent from Johnson’s War on Poverty. If Johnson would prove to be truly concerned about the economic dimensions of racism, King expected to tackle the entanglement of capitalism and systemic poverty. Progressives thought that inequality stemmed from racist practices, but King proclaimed that they resulted from the nation’s defining economic structure.
However, the PPC was by no mean a circumstantial byproduct of the Great Society: King had called for a “war on poverty” even before Johnson was elected. Moreover, King had offered the yet-to-be-elected president the blueprint of a true War on Poverty, which anticipated many of the limitations of Johnson’s antipoverty initiatives. At the Atlantic City convention of August 1964, King urged the Democratic Party to adopt an “Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” and issued a document substantiating his demand for a tangible redistribution of wealth. King explicitly exhorted the Democratic Party to move beyond formal rights to tackle critical economic issues plaguing the American poor. His address and his blueprint, rejected by the platform committee, has been forgotten and buried by the controversy that surrounded the convention, especially the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party dispute.
But King’s 1964 proposals, which he also enunciated at the Republican convention earlier that summer, deserve attention. Most of them would form the backbone of the Poor People’s Campaign. His choice of words, an “Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged of the Nation,” was meant to struck a chord in the conscience of liberals. Reminiscent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 “Second Bill of Rights,” it sought to enshrine the “freedom from want” as a core democratic principle. Full citizenship, King declared, entailed good wages and the right to employment, decent housing, medical care for all, welfare protections, and good education. But he suggested that only the right to an income would ensure citizenship to those unable to secure a decent living.
The last attempt of New Deal forces to implement this “freedom from want” was the 1946 Full Employment Act, enacted under President Harry S. Truman. Before its final revision, the act claimed that “all Americans able to work and seeking work have the right to useful, remunerative, regular, and full-time employment, and it is the policy of the United States to assure the existence at all times of sufficient employment opportunities to enable all Americans who have finished their schooling and who do not have full-time housekeeping responsibilities to freely exercise this right.” The government was charged with the responsibility to provide full employment. King demanded the fulfillment of this commitment. He called on the Democrats to take strong action.
He then fleshed out his Economic Bill of Rights, citing the 9.3 million families living below the poverty threshold of $3,000 per annum. He made clear that this figure should be legally declared a minimal subsistence floor “under which families would be entitled to receive direct payment to reach $3000.” In addition to this economic safety net for families, King called for “free quality education” and “broad health services.” Adding the need for a massive program to fight unemployment and slums, King estimated that an investment of fifty billion dollars over a decade would be required.
Two years later, the Freedom Budget would make the same estimate, which suggests that King drew in large part from the ongoing work of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin to bring forth a precise budget to fight poverty. Rustin, who returned to King’s inner council early in 1964, became one of his closest and most influential advisors and a key member of a task force named “The Research Committee.” By the time of the Atlantic City convention, Rustin’s class-based, labor-rooted analysis of freedom and equality permeated King’s speeches on poverty. King sought to convey the idea that if black Americans were, by virtue of their long history of victimization, the epitome of exploitation, poor whites were poverty stricken too.
From King and the Other America: The Poor People’s Campaign and the Quest for Economic Equality. Used with the permission of University of California Press. Copyright © 2018 by Sylvie Laurent.