"Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Unfinished War on Poverty

By Rev. Harcourt Klinefelter

I had the privilege of working with Martin Luther King in the last two years of his life. I knew him as my employer, my minister and friend and not only him, but also the rest of his family. As Assistant Director of Public Relations for SCLC my responsibilities included making the recordings of Dr. King’s speeches and sermons and then sending them to the media and making them suitable for radio programs.

In “Ï have a Dream” Dr. King in a superb poetical way was able to help us imagine what the future in America might look like and challenged us to make it a reality through the application of nonviolent means of social change. He later fought a War on Poverty which has implications for today’s human rights. I am not a lawyer – Like Dr. King I am a minister of the Gospel with a postgraduate degree in theology. But I have read the International Covenant for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It is easy to understand and it carries some of the same moral force as the Civil Rights Movement. In particular, I note: Article 22 on right to social security; Article 23 on the right to favorable working conditions and remuneration for “an existence worthy of human dignity”; Article 24 on the right to rest, leisure, and limitations on working hours; and Article 25 on adequate living standard including health, food, clothing, housing, and medical care. Unfortunately, the United States is one of the few countries in the world that has not signed the Covenant.

The word “covenant” appears often in the Bible. God made a “covenant” with Abraham to multiply his descendants. There was a “covenant” that God made with Noah and marked with a rainbow. In the New Testament, Jesus provided a new “covenant” of grace. Some called Dr. King the Prophet of the Twentieth Century.

History has a way of killing prophets literally or figuratively and later praising them in name only. This is certainly true today; many have questioned Dr. King’s relevance in our globalized world. Some have said that his message was something that only fitted in his time and place and that the world has changed so much that it is no longer relevant. Others know little more about Dr. King than the title of his famous speech.

It is ironic that Dr. King is so praised, and his method so neglected. It is just the opposite of what he wanted.
If we remember Dr. King only as the moral leader of the Civil Rights Movement in America, however important it was, and not his method of achieving such a Dream on a world scale then he becomes only a figure in history books. If we take seriously the implication of this vision and commemorate the victories won by non-violence means in so many countries all over the world since his assassination then his prophetic voice will echo down the ages.

Today, I would like let us to go back to the moment in history when Dr. King was killed in order to look at his vision that he had for us at that time. Then I will try to let you imagine what this far-sighted place might look like here and now. Hopefully it could restore our faith in what Dr. King Sr. so often said, “God makes a way where there is no way.”

Where do we go from here? That was the title of King’s last and most radical Southern Leadership Conference Address as well as his last book.

When Dr. King was assassinated the first phase of the Movement, the decisive battle in the fight against legal Segregation, had already been won. Only the mopping up remained. Just like the second phase of the struggle, that of gaining in practice voting rights for blacks. So as Dr. King said, both these had not cost the nation very much money. But the third and last phase of his Movement, the struggle for economic rights for all poor people, not just blacks, that would cost a lot. As long as people talk only about the rights of their own group this is less threatening to the established order. But when people organize all for all, that is a severe offence against the primary rule of staying in power, that of divide and conquer.

The third and last stage of the movement was for economic rights. It started in Chicago and the unfinished climax, was called the “Poor Peoples Campaign,” in 1968 when blacks, poor whites, Native Americans, and other minority groups were to go to Washington to camp in shanty towns at the Lincon Memorial and on the grounds of government buildings. Dr. King said, “This may be my last campaign. We’re going for broke.” His last campaign was perhaps even a greater threat than his criticism of the war in Vietnam. The goal was nothing short of abolishing poverty by using funds for the Vietnam War to, instead, fight a war on poverty. Dr. King’s idea of a guaranteed annual income was a revolutionary idea. Unfortunately it was never implemented.
In his last Christmas sermon, Dr. King said:

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked. ….

What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problems of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.

From “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” 1967

 Dr. King knew the Poor People’s Campaign would be dangerous. He appointed new members to the executive committee of SCLC because he expected some leaders would be assassinated. As you know, he was.

Where do we go from here?  He wrote:

“Our only real hope today lies our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and embracing nonviolence as a matter of principle….

In this spirit I will continue to work, with the help of God and others, to make the Dream a world-wide reality.
I hope that you too will join with me so that we can speed up the day when all over the globe we will be able to sing, “We Have Overcome!”

We will be able to sing We have over come when:
There would be the opposite of the ratio that we now have regarding prevention and cure.
Billions would then go for conflict prevention and pennies would be all that would be necessary for symptom alleviation.

We will be able to sing We have over come when:
Paid Nonviolent Peace makers would then be in the millions.

We will be able to sing We have over come when:
Passports would be issued by the United Nations and the borders of all lands would be open to all.

We will be able to sing We have over come when:
Trade agreements would be to fill the bellies of the poor and not the wallets of the rich.

We will be able to sing We have over come when:
Pharmaceutical companies would seek how they can enhance the health of the poorest instead of the stockholders.

We will be able to sing We have over come when:
The judicial systems would be more aimed at restorations of relations and less at punishment of offenders.

We will be able to sing We have over come when:
Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low:
The crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (Isaiah 40:4-5)

 As a final note of Dr. King’s relevance to today, I wish to remind you that the top 1 percent of Americans now own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth according to Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. This is worse than it was 25 years ago when the top 1 percent owned 33 percent of national wealth.

Who will be the prophets in our new era and will we ever see the crooked placed made straight? The Movement comes and goes – Huey Long in the 1930s, Dr. King in the 1960s, and we are now ripe for a new rise in the Movement. Will you be a part of it?

[Note: this is the text of a speech given by Revd. Klinefelter at a teleconference organized by the American Bar Association SIL International Human Rights Committee on March 26, 2012. The speech is published, here, on the website of RJ Gaudet & Associates LLC with the express permission of Revd. Klinefelter.]