While Dr. King was well known for Civil Rights, many Americans don’t know he supported unions and called out “white moderates” for preferring order over change.
Martin Luthor King Jr. was the one of the greatest advocates of civil rights for African Americans during the 20th century. He was well known in the community and with other organizations helped advocate non-violent protests to advocated for institutional changes that lead to desegregation and voting rights in the south. While this is something that is common knowledge to K-12 students, one of the things that was never mentioned (especially when I was growing up) was that he was a fierce advocate for the poor, supported unions, and that he was a self-described Democratic socialist.
These were several hidden facts that I didn’t realize about Martin until I was a couple years into my first years in college. The job of educating younger generations is highlighting not only how wrong and idiotic desegregation and denying African Americans the right to vote was but providing a wholistic accurate picture of what he did. In addition to civil rights, we must also highlight the kind of country he envisioned to ensure a fair and equal society. We’ll break down some of the forgotten legacy that we can all thank because of Dr. King and many others who tireless advocated for both racial and economic justice for all.
Precursor to Johnson’s War on Poverty
If you ask anyone about the Great Society, you automatically assume that it was because of President Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas. While he did help pass that program which cut poverty in half, Dr. King proposed one several years ago that was even more ambitious. While the Great Society spent $5 billion over the MLK plan called for a more ambitious $50 billion over ten years to fight poverty.
In 1964 Martin Luthor King Jr outlined to the Poor People’s Campaign a program aimed at eradicating poverty in America. The MLK program was called the Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged which called for several major goals based loosely off of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights.
“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.”
What MLK was proposing was economic justice for not only African Americans but also people who were predominantly poor white people as well. Since 85% of the population was of European heritage it’s possible Dr. King envisioned a program that would alleviate poverty and economic despair among all groups. He viewed discrimination of the poor just as egregious as discrimination of people based on the color of their skin.
“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.”
He was a Democratic Socialist
“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
– Speech to the Negro American Labor Council, 1961.
There are many instances in which Martin Luthor King Jr. described himself and his own philosophy as that of a Democratic socialist. A Democratic Socialist believes in forming broad coalitions of groups together to fight for the common goal of racial and economic justice for everyone so that everyone has certain rights. They believe in the right to a good education, a living wage, free medical coverage, labor unions, and eliminating poverty. Democratic socialists also believe in social ownership where the employees who produce the value of goods and services for their employers to sell have a seat at the table to discuss wages, health benefits, staff hiring, and more. In Germany in companies with over 2,000 employees 50% are required to be from trade unions on the board of directors.
“[W]e are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism…. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
– Speech to his staff, 1966.
They believe in accelerating and institutionalizing more progressive economic policies to ensure a more stable country. The Marshall Plan for instance called for universal healthcare, low-cost or tuition free college, funding infrastructure, recognizing labor unions, alleviating the divide among all socioeconomic groups, public-private pensions, and collective bargaining. Most of these concepts we implemented in Western Europe and seem to be working, we can apply some of those concepts to our own country so everyone has a leg up.
MLK Strongly Supported Unions
The third thing that is rarely discussed is that Dr. Martin Luthor King Jr. was a fierce advocate for labor unions. In fact, MLK’s advocacy for organized labor resulted in the unions providing the resources needed to fund the success of the civil rights movement. This eventually resulted in public pressure which led to the passage of the civil rights act and voting rights act.
“As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined,” King said in a letter to a laundry workers union in 1962.
Dr. King also noted that right to work laws were against the basic freedom of people to collectively bargain and negotiate for a fair day’s pay after a fair day’s work.