Moyers: Imagine If America Had Adopted Martin Luther King's Economic Dream
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.
But on many occasions, he talked about the economic and about America having 40 million people who are in poverty in the richest country in the world. He was talking about restructuring everything. And if you talk about restructuring, you're talking about class too.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes. You have to understand that some of this class tension was also within the black community. Some of King's most stinging speeches were to the members of his own, like Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, saying, "You spend more money on liquor at your annual convention than you contribute to the NAACP.”
"This is -- we're more concerned about, I know ministers who are more concerned about the wheel base on their Cadillac than they are the spiritual base of their commitment to this world." So, King drew an awful lot of sustenance and biting challenge from the basic notion of -- I think that his favorite parable was the parable of Lazarus and Dives in Luke about--
BILL MOYERS: Which was?
TAYLOR BRANCH: It was about the rich man who passed Lazarus begging at his door and didn't notice him and went to hell and saw Lazarus up in heaven.
And King interpreted this thing as saying the rich man did not go to hell because he was rich. He went there because he didn't notice the humanity of the man he was passing at his gate. And it was about humanity.
Remember how the sanitation strike started, it started because two members of the sanitation force were crushed in the back of a garbage truck that was a cylinder, one of those compacting cylinders, in a torrential rainstorm and they were not allowed by the city to seek shelter in storms.
Because the white residents didn't like it if black garbage men stopped. All the garbage workers were black. And, so, they weren't allowed -- the only place they could get shelter in -- they wouldn't all fit in the cabin. So, the ones that could fit in the cabin and two of them had to climb in the back with the garbage and a broom fell on the lever and it compacted them with the garbage. And that is the origin of the slogan, "I am a man. I am a man, not a piece of garbage." And that connects to King's philosophy.
BILL MOYERS: And the sanitation workers carried those signs, remember? "I am a man."
TAYLOR BRANCH: "I am a man." And to them, that was about Echol Cole and Robert Walker, their two friends who had been literally crushed with the garbage and nobody noticed. And King is saying, "You're going to go to hell as a nation if you don't notice the humanity of Echol Cole and Robert Walker.
JAMES CONE: And that's why justice is so central for King and why poverty became the focus of his ministry after that civil rights and voting rights. Because the civil rights and voting rights is not going to get rid of poverty. And, so, King saw that as central.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s listen again to Dr. King, from the speech he made to those striking sanitation workers in Memphis just weeks before he was shot to death. What he said about poverty still rings true.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen. And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.
BILL MOYERS: Could anything be more current right now?
TAYLOR BRANCH: No. It's hard to imagine, and of course, it's chilling to think what the distribution of wealth was when he made that indictment compared to what it is now. It is much more skewed now than it was then and it was bad then.
So, you really get a sense of King's power. I would only caution that we not assume that he undertook these issues of poverty only late in his career. It was part of his message all along. Certainly, if you look at Nobel Prize lecture in 1964, he says, we are -- the world is seeing the widest liberation in human history, not just in the United States but around the world.
And we cannot lose this opportunity to apply its nonviolent power to the triple scourge of race, war, and poverty, what he called violence of the flesh and violence of the spirit. This was a very, very broad vision early on. It's only at the end of his career that he's making witness on that because he sees his time limited and he wants to leave that witness.
He made a wonderful quote when he was arguing with his staff about doing the Poor People's Campaign and most of them didn't want to do it. He quoted something saying, ‘At times, you must finish with what you have, even if it's only a little.’
BILL MOYERS: You remind that the famous March on Washington five years earlier in 1963 wasn't called the March on Washington. It was a march for jobs--
JAMES CONE: Jobs and freedom.
BILL MOYERS: --and freedom. Which goes back to his early concern, as you say.
JAMES CONE: Actually, you know, King grew up, he was a child during the Depression and he saw relief lines, even as a young man, and he was disturbed about that. He came from a middle-class family, but he was disturbed about it then. And even when he got ready to go the Crozer Theological Seminary out of Morehouse, when they asked him why he wanted to go into ministry, he connected it with helping people, helping them deal with hurt and pain.
So, it's not new for King. King has always been concerned about that. I think it becomes sharp for him at the end because he's accomplished civil rights, and the voting rights, and now he sees that it's still, he sees the cities burning.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
JAMES CONE: And he wants to provide an alternative to riots.
BILL MOYERS: I want to play you an excerpt of the speech he delivered, one year to the day before he was killed, at Riverside Church here in New York City.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
BILL MOYERS: A radical revolution of values.
TAYLOR BRANCH: The revolution in values is to see people first, to see Lazarus at the gate and not pass them by. So, I think the revolution in values is Christian and it's democratic, but it starts with people. They have equal souls and equal votes and we are very stubborn, human nature, about denying that and wanting to see anything but.
BILL MOYERS: Was it theological?
JAMES CONE: Oh, yes. Because people are created in the image of God. If you're created in the image of God, you can't treat people like things. If we are interconnected with each other, we can't treat each other like things. If America is concerned with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you can't have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if you're treating others as things.
BILL MOYERS: So, what was the turning point that moved him from an understanding of what you're talking about to an actual agenda of trying to achieve it?
TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, I think part of it is a natural progression. If you are totally invisible, you're not even up to the level of a thing yet. The bus boycott, the sit-ins, the freedom rides, getting the right to vote, if you're not a citizen, you're not even up to the table where you can start dealing with these issues.
To me, Martin Luther King saw race as the gateway. If you can deal with race and the fundamental denial of common humanity through race, then it opens up possibilities which I think happened in history.
And finally, toward the end of his career, he said, we have an opportunity. Now that we are learning, at least the beginnings of treating each other as equal citizens to really tackle what he called the eternal scourge of racism, poverty, and war.
JAMES CONE: His fight against poverty was multiracial. He wasn't just focused with black people. Well, you can't get that multiracial fight against poverty unless first black people are regarded as persons. So, civil rights, that earlier part, is, as Taylor was saying, black people coming to the table. So, after they get to the table, if you’re going to deal with poverty, it spreads across races. So, King was concerned about a multiracial movement against poverty because that's what the Poor People's Campaign was about.
BILL MOYERS: So, that would help us understand the colorblindness of that Economic and Social Bill of Rights that he and the Poor People's Campaign developed in the first, early part of 1968.
“The right of every employable citizen to a decent job, the right of every citizen to a minimum income, the right of a decent house and the free choice of neighborhood, the right to an adequate education, the right to participate in a decision-making process, the right to the full benefits of modern science in health care.” Quite a statement.
TAYLOR BRANCH: And he had a workshop, one of the more remarkable events that never made any news and is not preserved in history, in which he had representatives of Indian tribes, Appalachian white coal miners--
JAMES CONE: That's right.
TAYLOR BRANCH: --Latinos of every different stripe. He had to do hurry-up education on how to tell a Chicano from the Mexicans. His rule was if they are poor, have them here. And half his staff was revolting against that, saying, "We are a black movement."
BILL MOYERS: Why? Because they felt it would dilute the impact of--
TAYLOR BRANCH: It would diminish the unfinished agenda for black folks. It would diminish their expertise. Hosea Williams, who was a lovely rascal --
JAMES CONE: That's right. That's right. He was strongly against it.
TAYLOR BRANCH: He said, “You're taking my budget and giving it away to Indians and Mexicans. You can't do that."
JAMES CONE: That's right. Yeah.
TAYLOR BRANCH: But he had this incredible conclave there of people who didn't know each other. And everything and he said, “If we can't agree together that there's a poverty and a common approach that's bigger than race, then we should stop now."
But by the end of this thing, he had them all together and the rival Indian tribes were settling differences, and the Chicanos said, "Okay, well, we're going to let the Indians go first because they were here first," you know and deferring.
JAMES CONE: That's right. That's right. That's right.
TAYLOR BRANCH: It was a remarkable event.
BILL MOYERS: He was growing more impatient in the last few months and more radical. Let's listen to what he told those workers we were talking about in Memphis.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it. And you know what? You may have to escalate the struggle a bit. If they keep refusing and they will not recognize the union, and will not decree further check-off for the collection of dues, I'll tell you what you ought to do, and you're together here enough to do it. In a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.
BILL MOYERS: That was a genuine call to the barricades.
JAMES CONE: Yes, it was. And but you can't do that without that inner freedom that he's talking about, which is the freedom that empowers you to stop the work. It is the freedom inside that makes you do that. And for King, everybody has to claim that freedom. It's not a gift. Freedom is something that you have to demand from others, but you cannot demand it from others unless you have it internally yourself. And that's a kind of inner freedom.
BILL MOYERS: In what sense was he free?
JAMES CONE: Well, King was free because death did not stop him. That is, the fear of death did not keep him from doing his actions for freedom. See, if the fear can stop you, then you are not free. So, freedom from fear was crucial. And throughout the South, having grown up there, I know what that fear is like.
And what is the most amazing thing for me is how King could inspire ordinary black people by the masses, like in Memphis, to march when white people have intimidated them for centuries. What King taught was that inner freedom that makes you confront the oppressor, even if it means risking your life. So the freedom from fear is the necessary freedom to get to civil rights, to get the jobs, to get work against poverty, even though the odds may be against you. And for black people, the odds were against them.
BILL MOYERS: But here's the unfortunate thing. As you write about it, after his assassination, riots broke out across Memphis. And even though he acknowledged that, quote, "Riot is the language of the unheard," didn't this outbreak of violence in some way begin the end of the movement?
TAYLOR BRANCH: This is a very, very profound and difficult topic and I would have to say that it had already begun before. Nonviolence was already not popular. It had already become passÃ©. Some of the most hostile language toward nonviolence came from the Left, people saying that nonviolence is kind of Sunday school and outmoded now.
And that we want to adopt the language of violence.
And King's answer to that was, “Nonviolence is a leadership doctrine. If we abandon nonviolence, it's not that we're stepping up to demand the right to be just violent, just like first-class white people. We're stepping back from a leadership doctrine in the United States." And that's what America including especially white America, does not understand.
One of the few speeches, by the way, in which a white leader acknowledged that was Johnson.
Before he said, "We shall overcome," he said “so it was at Appomattox, so it was at Concord, so it was at Selma last week, when fate and destiny met in the same moment."
So, he was putting a nonviolent black movement not only in the heart of American patriotism, but in the vanguard heart of American patriotism.
BILL MOYERS: But do you admit that nonviolence ultimately didn't work? That it couldn't change America?
TAYLOR BRANCH: No.
JAMES CONE: No. It did change America.
TAYLOR BRANCH: It did change America.
JAMES CONE: It changed it radically for me. I grew up in Arkansas and I know what fear is. What the movement did, nonviolence did, was to take the terror out of the South. And for the first time, you can not only go to hotels, but you can go all over the South without much fear of harm. That is a major achievement.
BILL MOYERS: Certainly I recognize that.
TAYLOR BRANCH: The white South was the poorest region of the country when it was segregated. It was totally preoccupied in this terror.
It was not fit for professional sports, even, until nonviolence lifted it out of segregation and white Southern politicians were no longer stigmatized. So, you get Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and all these people elected president. And they're all standing on the shoulders of a nonviolent black movement. Whether they realize it or acknowledge it or not. That's the reason that our blinkered memory of this period is such a handicap for us today.
BILL MOYERS: Granted, but nonviolence did not bring about the economic restructuring that King hoped for. So that today he could make the same speeches about inequality, poverty, work that he made 45 years ago.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Poverty is probably the toughest issue. You're talking about how much nonviolence? Maybe two or three years?
And for the time that it was active and that it matured into what is the movement. Movement is a word we use often, but don't reflect on what it means.
It was the watch word of politics. People were moved and literally moved history. But in a very, very short time. Now, the watch word of politics is spin. You know, nothing’s going anywhere and nobody's moving.
BILL MOYERS: Not since Martin Luther King has inequality been on the table the way it was at the Occupy briefly appeared on the scene. And I wondered watching Occupy from here if a Martin Luther King had risen to embody that movement, would they have carried us further toward the changes that King and others wanted?
JAMES CONE: It may would have. I'm not sure. But, you know, getting rid of poverty, redistribution of wealth is not as easy as getting the right to vote. The right to vote doesn't cost anything. But redistribution of wealth takes across class lines. That costs a lot. And people will fight you in order to prevent that from happening. And I don't know what it would take in order to make that happen.
TAYLOR BRANCH: It's also not a simple formula. Dr. King never said we were going to give up freedom to have redistribution imposed on us. He never advocated something like that. It is a hard intellectual, spiritual challenge to figure out, "How do you preserve freedom and address poverty?" I don’t think Occupy got that far yet. It didn’t take that much responsibility.
It was just kind of a sign of protest and not a developed sense of responsibility the way, even the sit-ins were taking lessons from Rosa Parks.
JAMES CONE: Yes. That's right. The sit-ins disrupted society. The freedom riots disrupted things. Occupy Wall Street didn't disrupt much of anything. They just camped down there and they were not grassroots in quite the same way the Southern movement was during the time of King.
BILL MOYERS: King was identifying with labor and workers and felt that unions were an essential part of the civil rights struggle.
I have this speech from 1961, when he told delegates of AFL-CIO convention, "Our needs are identical with labor's needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for the children, and respect in the community." He felt this radical structuring that you talk about could not come without labor. And today, 45 years later, unions are largely impotent, smallest percentage of the workforce. So, what's happened to labor today?
TAYLOR BRANCH: Labor has fallen in disfavor and fallen into, in some respects, an intellectual vacuum. Because people take for granted the right that we give capital to organize in form of corporations. Every corporation is a public charter.
It is a creation of our people. It is a legal entity that we create. And the notion that people on the other end need some sort of vehicle in a global economy in order to make their rights effective ought to be an easy idea at least to begin a conversation with. But we're so frightened that anything -- I guess we're beholden to corporations in the way that people in the early movement felt that they were beholden to segregation, that their place in the order was threatened.
If you start messing around with this thing, your whole place might go. That's how they marshaled a lot of Southerners who were not in sympathy with segregation into not being for doing anything about it. And, so, right now, you know, I think that we're hostage to our fears and don't really understand how we need to think about economics.
BILL MOYERS: A year before his death, this time he was speaking in California at Stanford University, he said, "In the North, schools are more segregated today than they were in 1954, when the Supreme Court's decision on desegregation was rendered. Economically, the Negro is worse off today than he was 15 and 20 years ago.
"And, so, the unemployment rate among whites at one time was about the same as the unemployment rate among Negroes. But today, the unemployment rate among Negroes is twice that of whites. And the average income of the Negro is today 50% less than whites." Now, Taylor and James, he could practically say the same thing today, 45 years later.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Absolutely.
JAMES CONE: Absolutely.
TAYLOR BRANCH: And when he did it, though, he could also say to American white people, "You tend to think of black people as hopelessly caught up in the rear. The way you should look at this is that the things that are happening to black people, unless you make common cause, are going to happen to you, too."
The poverty rates, the divorce rates in families that were decried among black people now, the white society has long since passed. The notion that higher education is primarily harder for men, which is now afflicting white society. Most of our college graduates are females. That's been true in black society for years.
And it has had effects in the culture. So, Dr. King said black folks are a headlight of the problems we need to deal with. And white people too often just see them as something that needs to be left behind and out of mind.
BILL MOYERS: So, what would liberation theology say today about what Taylor just described?
JAMES CONE: Well, you know, liberation theology came into being largely because mainstream theology had not spoken to that gap. So, it was in the late '60s, early '70s, throughout the '80s, all the way up to the present day that liberation theology has its meaning primarily in seeing Jesus as one in solidarity with the poor to get them out of poverty.
So, in actual fact, what I see King as, is a precursor to liberation theology. I see King actually making liberation theology, particularly on the American scene, as real and true. And I think if he were here today, he would be trying to bridge this gap between the rich and the poor.
He focused on black people but it was always multiracial for King.
TAYLOR BRANCH: To connect it to what Jim just said, I think that an awful lot of people today are fearful of the basic economic structure and it keeps them from thinking and rattling and getting together to address these problems. He said that King conquered his fear. I say it took him a while to do it, but he certainly did it.
JAMES CONE: Yeah. Yeah.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Fannie Lou Hamer conquered her fear. Everything that she did, including testifying as an unpolished woman before the Democratic Convention, she did when she was homeless. She had been evicted from her plantation. But she had gotten rid of her fear and had a vision that would empower and make productive whole generations of people who racism had denied, you know.
So, we have an awful lot of productive people in the society today who are productive and educated and have talent because the movement helped people conquer their fear. But we're now at another stage.
Now it's hitting us and I think everybody is afraid to deal with these issues in the way that the movement dealt with them, which was, "I'm going to let loose of my fear. I'm not going to worry about my savings and my wealth and whether my kids are going to get into Harvard. I'm going deal with the basic issues of how we can cope with these things together."
BILL MOYERS: Given the absence of a movement today, given the power of money, corporations, and the structure, what do you think Martin Luther King would say to those in power today?
JAMES CONE: I think he would say something about, “You -- this society cannot survive with the huge gap between the one percent and the 99 percent. When you have that kind of gap, then you destroy the possibility of genuine human community and showing how we are interconnected together.
TAYLOR BRANCH: I pretty much agree with that. I think he would have to be saying, "Don't give into pride and thinking that it is solely your genius that's creating all these billions that you're sitting on. You are reaping the interconnectedness that we have.
"And that interconnectedness is precious. And it is political. And that can vanish. And so, you need to look beyond that." We only have two hopes: enlightenment, which comes from really wrestling and conquering your pride and appealing to the young, quite frankly; and catastrophe. That's the only other hard teacher that we would have, which is that we're going to ride this system into a catastrophe. And then we will wake up and say, "Why didn't we do it before? Why didn't we listen to Martin Luther King?"
BILL MOYERS: Taylor Branch and James Cone, thank you very much for being with me and for your thoughts and ideas.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Thank you.
JAMES CONE: Thank you.