Martin Luther King Jr. left many legacies – as a crusader for civil rights, voting rights, religious harmony, peace and economic justice. As we reflect on his legacy, I was struck by a story written by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post that talked about how “timeless” King’s economic message was (“to our society’s great shame”) and how much further we still have to go.
In the weeks before his death, King was preparing for a march on Washington as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, and he formulated a speech called “The Other America.” Although not as well known as King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, there’s much that still rings true in this speech five decade later. Robinson quotes King’s speech given in New York City in March 1968:
“One America is flowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality. That America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits … But as we assemble here tonight, I’m sure that each of us is painfully aware of the fact that there is another America, and that other America has daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In that other America millions of people find themselves forced to live in inadequate substandard housing, and often dilapidated housing conditions…
“In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education … because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out.
According to Robinson, the problem was structural as he quoted King further: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
Robinson states that King continued this theme eight days later when he addressed striking sanitation workers in Memphis: “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 the facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and full-time job getting part-time income.”
According to Robinson, King explained the shift in his focus:
“Now our struggle is for genuine economic equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?“
Robinson concludes with “What King saw in 1968 – and what we all should recognize today – is that it is useless to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of inequality.”
To read the Robinson’s article in full, go to
To read King’s Other America speech in full, go to http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/mlk-gp-speech.pdf