Universal health care, a public-job guarantee, and massive wealth redistribution are not just buzzwords in cable news interviews as myriad politicians vie for the Democratic presidential nomination. As cultural historian Sylvie Laurent’s new book shows, these ideas were the ideological foundations of the nation’s most daring, dramatic, and largely overlooked moral crusade. In King and the Other America: The Poor People’s Campaign and the Quest for Economic Equality, Laurent reckons with the intellectual traditions that led Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize a multiracial coalition of poor folks who demanded sweeping changes to America’s political economy. The Poor People’s Campaign brought thousands of impoverished Americans to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1968 to press for a host of federal guarantees on education, health care, and housing. “We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights,” King told the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967.
Laurent, a French scholar of race and class in the US, does not aim to describe the campaign’s organization, which other scholars have addressed.1 Instead, she follows the trajectory of King’s political thought on race, class, imperialism, and patriotism to expose the intellectual “creed” that spurred the Poor People’s Campaign. She argues the campaign was the culmination of King’s quest to understand the causes and consequences of his country’s long history of injustice. In tracing the course of King’s philosophy, Laurent is particularly concerned — though not exclusively — with the extent to which King adopted and shunned both white and Black Marxist traditions. She situates King in the tradition of Black thought leaders, men she dubs “the patriarchs,” who had drawn from their own biographies to forge critiques of entwined racial and economic oppression. “Dismantling structural racism was requisite for any serious transformational class politics,” she writes of King’s emergent thinking. By underscoring Black involvement in communist politics and radical Christian interpretations, Laurent brings King’s political thought fully into view as a unique amalgam of Black radicalism, Marxism, and European theology. To bolster her claims, she offers close readings of King’s letters and speeches to show he was not a communist sympathizer, but that he “used what was relevant in the Marxian diagnosis to call on the American economic system to restructure and redeem.”