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Moyers: Imagine If America Had Adopted Martin Luther King's Economic Dream

A discussion on King’s vision of economic justice, and how so little has changed for America’s most oppressed.

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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. You may think you know about Martin Luther King, Jr., but there is much about the man and his message we have conveniently forgotten. He was a prophet, like Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah of old, calling kings and plutocrats to account, speaking truth to power.

Yet, he was only 39 when he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th, 1968. The March on Washington in ’63 and the March from Selma to Montgomery in ’65 were behind him. So were the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In the last year of his life, as he moved toward Memphis and fate, he announced what he called the Poor People’s Campaign, a “multi-racial army” that would come to Washington, build an encampment and demand from Congress an “Economic Bill of Rights” for all Americans — black, white, or brown. He had long known that the fight for racial equality could not be separated from the need or economic equity – fairness for all, including working people and the poor. That’s why he was in Memphis, marching with sanitation workers on strike for a living wage when he was killed.

With me are two people steeped in King’s life and work. Taylor Branch wrote the extraordinary, three-volume history of the civil rights era, “America in the King Years.” The first of them, “Parting the Waters,” received the Pulitzer Prize. He now has distilled all that work, adding fresh material and insights to create this new book, “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Right Movement.”

James Cone, a longtime professor of theology at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, wrote the ground-breaking books that defined black liberation theology, interpreting Christianity through the eyes and experience of the oppressed. Among them: “Black Theology and Black Power,” “Martin and Malcolm and America,” and this most recent bestseller, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

Before we talk, let’s listen to these words from Martin Luther King, Jr., spoken at Stanford University just a year before his assassination. It’s as if he were saying them today.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. And in a sense this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, and culture and education for their minds, and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. […] But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to you both.

BILL MOYERS: As he was trying to converge economics, race, social and political equality, what was he struggling for at that time when he, alone among his colleagues, wanted to take on the tough structure of prejudice in economics in the North?

JAMES CONE: I think he was thinking about class issues. He talked about class issues to his staff. He didn't do it primarily in speeches because of the kind of anticommunism spirit that was so deep in America at that time.

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