Glossing Over King: What About the Poor?

A few weeks ago, when the nation celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many Americans forgot the role King played as a Jeremiah who sought economic justice for all. As excerpts from the famous “Dream” speech comforted us about racial progress, our class gaps were the widest since the Depression.

While racial sideshows play on the media’s stages, economic divisions widen in the wings. The curtain gets raised at times—as in the brief concern about All Those Poor People Uprooted by Katrina. But that was followed by Congress cutting $40 billion in programs for the disadvantaged.

Troubled cultures often long for golden ages. In The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter recalled how the rapid growth of new, disruptive industries in the early 19th century inspired nostalgia for the town meetings and village greens of rural Jeffersonian democracy. So it goes with our view of King as a civil-rights icon—a nation that was abandoning its poor in the 1980’s rushed forward to celebrate King’s birthday as a national holiday.

Roman history has a curious precedent for this: the Emperor Augustus using a long-dead freedom fighter to bury, while praising, lost freedoms. Two decades earlier, Cato the Younger’s suicide had ended republican resistance to Julius Caesar. To justify his new tyranny, the first Caesar issued an anti-Cato pamphlet. A generation later, the second Caesar contrived his own contrasting brochure. “In this Augustan revision,” wrote Ronald Syme in The Roman Revolution, “Cato, always an admirer of ordered government, would have been an enthusiastic supporter of the New State … safe from despotism and restored to Libertas.” So powerful an emblem was the last Roman rebel’s example that George Washington even staged a play about Cato (by the 18th-century English essayist and poet Joseph Addison) to rally his winter soldiers at Valley Forge.

A similar transformation has overtaken our own most revered “Cato.” We forget how, at his death, King was largely ignored, his Poor People’s Campaign headed for probable failure in Washington. Though it was revived after his assassination, poverty soon faded from our politics, as the left’s energies were diffused among new, middle-class causes like consumerism, ecology, feminism and gay rights.

“I’m a liberal on social issues, but conservative in fiscal affairs” went the new code words for ditching the poor. As the Other America became poorer, more forgotten, more disorganized—more other—King Day reassurances about better race relations took off, not to mention a new “diversity” bureaucracy at our leading corporations and universities.

A shrewd tactician, King’s stress on nonviolence, on turning the other cheek, helped the fast advance of civil rights. He was also the wise strategist who, while scorning “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” reined in hopes for economic justice to unite the broad coalition for the triumphs of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But he never forgot his goal of equity for all. Four years after the “Dream” speech, he pointedly noted: “It is much easier to integrate a local community than it is to integrate economically …. We have moved from a struggle for decency … to a struggle for genuine equality.”

King’s poor are forgotten today as race melodramas divide poor whites and blacks who might unite for changes like a living wage or tax reforms favoring the middle and working classes. Meanwhile, even our mainstream is struggling to stay afloat amid a rising tide of inequalities.

Even before President Bush expanded class gaps with his record tax cuts, inequality had soared over the previous two decades. Where our top fifth earned 7.7 times what our bottom fifth did in 1980, they earned 11.4 times as much in 2001.

Meanwhile, we open new golden parachutes for inept C.E.O.’s. What a contrast with Japan Air Lines, where a $102.4 million loss in 2005 meant the following wage cuts: Eight percent for lower management and labor, 12 percent for senior managers—and a 23 to 40 percent cut for J.A.L. board members, including chief executive Toshiyuki Shimata.

In 1996, Bill Clinton virtually repealed Franklin Roosevelt’s main safety net for the poor under the guise of “welfare reform.” That was quite a contrast with an actual Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, who exploded in frustration over economic equality. According to his aide, Richard Goodwin, Johnson once said, “I’m sick of all the people who talk about things we can’t do. Hell, we’re the richest country in the world …. We can do it if we believe it …. You just have to get full of your subject and let it fly.”

That spirit of “letting it fly” was the larger reality of Martin Luther King Jr., and one we tend to forget. Instead, we’ve had five years of relentless assaults on economic fairness by a Republican President and Congress, attacks worthy of Cato the Elder’s harsh demand that Carthage be destroyed. Faltering Democrats beguiled by social issues must finally launch a sustained drive for economic justice to revive the old, triumphant electoral coalitions that backed the New Deal and the Great Society—the truest way to honor one of America’s most prophetic leaders.

Glossing Over King: What About the Poor?