|Today, April 4th, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. King’s influence and impact is profound and lasting, shaping a generation of Black activists, artists, and intellectuals. His assassination’s anniversary is, therefore, a time for serious contemplation of his legacy.
In the years following the 1963 March On Washington, he augmented his eloquent and poignant “I Have a Dream” vision with a deepening opposition to Washington’s foreign policy and to the economic system that produced aggression abroad and inequality and poverty at home. King firmly opposed the war in Vietnam. His opposition was not simply a powerful moral stance, but one that tied Washington’s aggression to a system that produced, maintained and required great disparities of wealth and power between a privileged few and the disenfranchised vast majority. He observed: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”
King understood that while the Civil Rights Movement had won important victories, these victories could not be permanent as long as the underlying structural roots of inequality, poverty and racism were not fundamentally altered. In short, capitalism had to be radically transformed. In a 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King unequivocally articulated this analysis:
“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?’ These are questions that must be asked.”
King’s political practice and strategy reflected his new analytical appreciation of the interconnection of racism, oppression, inequality and capitalism. In the last year of his life, he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to achieve a fairer and more equitable society through a united movement of Black and white workers, of all the exploited and oppressed in the United States. While the Poor People’s Campaign aimed for peaceful reform, it was a potent challenge to the ideological and ideational hegemony of capitalism.
The goal – the Promised Land- was the creation of a better world, one fit for human beings. While the Promised Land has yet to be reached – and for some envisioned – the struggle for a better world endures.
Isaac Saney is co-ordinator of the Transitional Year Program at Dalhousie and lectures in Black history at Dalhousie and S. Mary’s Universities in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada