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Martin Luther King's unfinished business

Martin Luther King, who was assassinated 40 years ago today in Memphis, where he was supporting a strike of low-paid municipal workers, is more often than not characterised as leader of the civil rights movement in the United States and a man driven solely by religion. But King was much, much more than that and by the end of his life was advocating change of a revolutionary character, challenging the power of American capitalism.

Martin Luther KingIn August 1963, under Kennedy’s presidency, King led a multi-racial rally of 250,000 in Washington demanding economic justice. It was the largest gathering in the capital’s history, and where King held the crowd spellbound with his inspiring, momentous “I have a dream” speech about how “this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’”.

King rebuked the country’s leaders for breaking the promises contained in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, to guarantee the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque which has come back marked 'insufficient funds,'" he said. Moreover, in a distinct rebuff to America’s black separatist movement, King urged unity, declaring: “Many of our white brothers as evidenced by their presence here today have come to realise that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and they have come to realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We can not walk alone."

From 1965, King started to attack America’s war in Vietnam. Exactly a year before his death, he delivered “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”. He insisted that the US was in Vietnam "to occupy it as an American colony" and denounced the government as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. King also said that people around the world would look with indignation and see “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries”.

In private he sometimes spoke of his support for democratic socialism. In a speech in front of his staff in November 1966, King told them:

“You can't talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can't talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You're really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry… Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong… with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organised the "Poor People's Campaign" to address issues of economic justice. He criss-crossed the country to assemble "a multiracial army of the poor" that would descend on Washington — engaging in non-violent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be — until Congress enacted a poor people's bill of rights. Reader's Digest warned of an "insurrection". King cited systematic flaws of racism, poverty, militarism and materialism, and that "reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced".

His family have never supported the official version of the assassination, which has James Earl Ray as the lone gunman. Ray was an escaped convict who later retracted his confession. He had neither the motive, money or mobility to have killed King by himself. Jesse Jackson, who was with King on April 4, 1968, says: “Our government was very involved in setting the stage for and I think the escape route for James Earl Ray.”

A report published today by the Service Employees International Union explores the economic implications of King’s movement and message. "Beyond the Mountaintop: King’s Prescription for Poverty", concludes that 40 years after King spoke of a promised land of social and economic justice, “we seem to be paralysed outside the gates of the city”.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
4 April 2008

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