Poor people, unite you – across racialization

ECONOMIC DIFFERENCE: In an era when antiracism is being portrayed as identity politics and white poor people are being blamed for Trump, it is helpful to be reminded of Martin Luther King's attempt to bridge the fight against racism and economic inequality.

Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.
King and the Other America. The Poor People's Campaign and the Quest for Economic Equality

ECONOMIC INequality: In an era where anti-racism is being demarcated as identity politics and white poor are accused of blaming Trump, it is helpful to be reminded of Martin Luther King's attempt to bridge the gap against racism and economic inequality.

(Note: The article is mostly machine-translated from Norwegian by Gtranslate)

The Poor People's Campaign – it was Martin Luther King's last major project whose implementation he failed to see. When the civil rights icon was shot down in 1968, it also became an opportunity to hide his role in the fight to bridge the gap between poor blacks and poor whites in the United States. That's the main point of a new book, King and the Other America, which attempts to reignite the discussion of the link between racism and economic inequality through a fresh look at Martin Luther King's political thoughts and actions.

"The egalitarian economic demands" of the interracial Poor People's Campaign, Laurent writes, were "overshadowed by King's death" and – through a pool of interests – simultaneously bounded by history. To the extent that the campaign has gained any room at all, it has been portrayed as a project that was doomed to fail, as a kind of late and ill-considered exclamation in the work of an otherwise intangible civil rights activist.

Sylvie Laurent's book on Martin Luther King's latest major project puts the fight against racism and economic inequality in historical perspective.

Through readings of Martin Luther King's speeches, political writings, and political alliances, historian Sylvie Laurent tries, in part, to show that The Poor People's Campaign was not a deviation, but on the contrary to King's thoughts, and partly to highlight the radical and ever-present potential his last project.

Formal and real rights

The Poor People's Campaign emerged from the recognition that the victories the civil rights movement had achieved during the 1950s and 1960s were not worth much without financial access to claim its rights. What does it mean to have the right to go to a restaurant if you cannot afford a meal?

"While Americans today are generally aware that the United States has huge inequalities between rich and poor, this was not a widespread realization in the 1950s and 1960s," Laurent writes. Therefore, when a figure like Martin Luther King explicitly put this relationship into words – what he did all his life and work, the historian points out, was also radically perceived.

Nobel Peace Prize 1964 to Dr Martin Luther King.
Photo: Henrik Laurvik, NTB Scanpix.

King lived in a marked anti-communist era where there was not much criticism of the political economy to be condemned as a social undermining. At the same time, many of his black peers believed that the primary problem was racism, and any attempt to talk about class differences in general was to acknowledge this more pressing fact. Therefore, many were also interested in keeping his Poor People's Campaign silent – both while it was going on and in the subsequent history writing.

Laurent points out that King went in early with those who would separate antiracism and class struggle. Among other things, he said in 1963:

“One of the unfortunate consequences of the Black Power slogan is that it puts race at the top of a time when the effects of automation and other forces have made the economic issue crucial to both blacks and whites. In that light, the slogan 'Power to the poor' is far more appropriate. ”

Transracial alliance

King saw clearly that economic inequalities had not subsided with the formal rights blacks had fought for – but that economic inequality had actually increased over the same period. Admittedly, there were disproportionately many blacks among America's poor, but poverty – and related issues such as lack of access to decent housing, education, health and more – was also an epidemic problem among Latin American citizens in the United States, among Indigenous peoples, and "millions of whites" .

King argued early with those who would separate antiracism and class struggle.

The automation – and in addition to outsourcing and relocation – of jobs that King talked about in the 1960s has since proletarized an ever larger proportion of the United States population. Economic inequality is still closely linked to racism, just as it still runs across racialization.

The Poor People's Campaign was in all its simplicity – and complexity – a vision of getting poor people of all origins to camp in the center of the capital and create their own community, practical and political, and refusing to move before the political establishment had shown that they took the redistributive aspects of the equal rights requirement seriously.

The camp was renamed Resurrection City, populated by 3000 people and passed for six weeks despite a massive campaign against it, including intelligence services infiltration and all other anti-communist cannon designs.

Last year, the campaign was attempted to be revived by the two pastors William Barber II and Liz Theoharis under the slogan "A National Call for Moral Revival". They focus on, among other things, the persistent systemic racism and on the fact that salaries for most people have not increased since the 1970s, even though the economy has grown continuously. Sylvie Laurent's book on Martin Luther King's last major project – and the political context it emerged from – puts the fight against racism and economic inequality in historical perspective. This re-reading of one of the civil rights movement's icons is timely in an era when antiracism is being portrayed as identity politics and white poor are accused of blaming Trump.

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