Civil rights was Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, but another topic was strictly off-limits.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day, and we know from history class that he fought against segregation and is often (mis)quoted by people from all walks of life and political affiliations when it comes to civil rights and racial inequality. I honestly don’t think I should go into too much detail about such a well-known figure, but I do need to address one thing that virtually no one talks about: when MLK started addressing economic issues such as poverty, income inequality, and economic justice, he was assassinated.
Was MLK’s assassination solely because he talked about economic issues?
This question begs research and review, especially in this day and age when we are fighting unfair hiring practices, low wages, and other forms of economic injustice fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevented outright discrimination, discrimination continued (and still continues) in many forms. Many positions of management and leadership are still overwhelmingly white and male. Even among rank-and-file, one has to “whiten” their resume to even be considered for employment.
After securing some semblance of equal rights through the Civil Rights Act, MLK turned to economic issues. In 1966, he went to Chicago to live in a working-class neighborhood to secure housing rights and job access, which are two economic issues that continue to be important today. Ultimately, MLK negotiated an agreement with then-Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley to not protest.
In fact, the final protest that MLK attended was for workers’ rights in Memphis, Tennessee. While MLK had always been considered dangerous by the authorities due to his activism, when he spoke up about economic inequality, it was inaccurately conflated with communism (MLK himself was a registered Republican). During the Cold War years, any talk of anything that could be considered communism was thus, considered a threat. While there are a myriad of MLK assassination conspiracy theories, I believe that his activism regarding economic issues is possibly one of the stronger (if not the strongest) reasons that he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
MLK’s legacy should be re-evaluated given the economic issues we face today.
Today, we need to reflect on what MLK wanted in his economic policy: basic universal income, job guarantee, low-income housing, and other topics that he approached but people conveniently overlook in the history books. I would argue that his calls for economic justice were far more dangerous to the establishment than his calls for racial justice. I would also argue that his calls for racial justice are also largely unfulfilled today, but more closely intertwined with his calls for economic justice considering racial and ethnic minorities’ opportunities for success still lag far behind their white counterparts.
This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, look beyond just one aspect of MLK’s message and look at all of them. Economic justice is justice for all.