Why Do We Neglect MLK's Dream of a World Freed from Poverty?Roundup
tags: poverty, Martin Luther King Jr., economic justice
Jeffrey Nall teaches courses in philosophy and humanities at the University of Central Florida. He writes the newsletter "Humanities in Revolt."
In our highly polarized political climate, Americans can agree on few things. One rare point of unity is the legacy of Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, whom 90 percent of Americans view favorably — a considerably higher percentage than when he was alive.
Our nation’s collective memory of King is perhaps best summed up by the “fun facts” coloring page my son brought home from his first grade classroom in 2019. A cartoon depiction of King stands in the center of the page holding two flags, one reading “freedom” and the other reading “equality.” Surrounding him are four statements:
“I was a key leader in the American Civil Rights Movement.”
“I believed in, and fought for, equal rights for African Americans.”
“I helped end legal segregation and discrimination in the United States.”
“My famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream,’ promoted freedom and equality for all.”
The King most of us honor each year fits neatly with the vision of our nation triumphantly overcoming its immoral missteps, making King’s dream — the American dream — a reality. Our nation’s unjust past becomes further evidence of its greatness since we generated not only the injustice but also the solution to that injustice. Racial segregation was a test, and we passed.
But this vision of King, however unifying, is ultimately a fable that serves the economically and politically powerful, who are themselves standing in the way of progress toward the just society he died struggling to build. This fable hollows out King’s most incisive social critiques and dulls his prophetic philosophy of social transformation in the service of love. Central to that vision was the elimination of economic inequality.
On April 4, 1967, one year before his death, Reverend King delivered his boldest national address, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” King called for the United States to withdraw from Vietnam and begin a “radical revolution of values” by channeling the millions of dollars spent on war to address the dire needs of the nation’s poor. He contended that the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” reinforced one another, preventing the flourishing of a truly just society.
King came to this conclusion after observing that millions of black people remained in dire conditions even as important advances had been made in civil rights, including ending segregation and expanding voting rights. As early as the bus boycott years, King had argued that those in power pit poor whites against ethnic minorities to prevent poor people from working collaboratively to change the social order.