Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy’s Fight for Economic Justice Fifty Years Ago

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A 50-Year Train Wreck

Anyone who has been on the planet for any period of time knows that this breakdown did not happen yesterday. In fact, some of our rail and water infrastructure goes back 150 years to the Civil War era.  But, for time’s sake, let’s focus on the last fifty years.

In 1968, both Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy shined a light on the ugly conditions of life, from poverty to racism and violence.  Both leaders were heavily involved in campaigns to bring economic justice to the most disadvantaged.

In January 2010, two years after the 2008 crash, which hit the middle class hard, The Nation magazine published an article on King’s overall economic policy, which highlighted some crucial elements.

It’s important to get to the core of King’s thinking during his 1968 call for the Poor People’s Campaign,” where he focused on “joblessness and economic deprivation.”

King made the argument during one of his last sermons, given at the National Cathedral on March 31, five days before his assassination: “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” Such thinking echoed that of FDR, when he launched his massive infrastructure programs during the New Deal.


Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy in Washington, D.C. on June 22, 1963


Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy

King believed that the answer was to “confront the power structure massively.” He did so by calling for a “massive Federal Public Works program to provide jobs for all the unemployed,’ and spoke of the “twin evils of discrimination and economic deprivation.”

Just as Dr. King, Robert F. Kennedy, in his “Poverty Tour,” identified the deprivation caused by inadequate housing, lack of food, no schooling, and insufficient clothing he felt the need, during this presidential campaign, to bring these conditions to the full attention of the American people. He warned, “I believe that as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.”

Unfortunately, since then, inequality has only grown. The Economic Policy Institute reports that, in 1962, a family unit in the top one percent of U.S. households had approximately 125 times the wealth of an average household. By 2004, it had risen to 190 times.

Jobs for the “social good”

The Nation article also included King’s criticism of “Johnson’s War on Poverty for being too piecemeal.”  King wrote, “While housing programs, job training and family counseling were not themselves unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis”… “At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived.”

King went on to attack the “fragmentary and spasmodic reforms.” He advocated that the government provide full employment. “We need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”

“We realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will.”  He called for “a guaranteed annual income pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income.”

King’s economic conception was very different than the proposals today to merely raise the minimum wage, or even a “jobs for all” program.  King believed in the necessity to develop an individual’s human potential as the basis for a fulfilled life, and that each individual has the power within them to make a great contribution to society.

RFK’s Poverty Tour

Over the course of what became known as his “poverty tour,” Senator Kennedy visited the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky and western Pennsylvania, California’s Central Valley. and the Mississippi Delta. Among whites, blacks, and Latinos alike, Kennedy found a nation within our nation in need of aid, and wrongs that needed righting.

Bobby Kennedy visiting the Mississippi Delta

In June 2018, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Senator’s assassination, Americanmagazine.com covered RFK’s tour.

The article correlates the poverty in 1974 with that of forty years later.

“As for racial differences, in 1974, 30 percent of African-Americans and 23 percent of Latinos lived in poverty, compared with 8 percent of whites. This gap persists, according to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center, with 26 percent of African-Americans, 24 percent of Latinos and 10 percent of whites living in poverty.”

“California now ranks 20th under the traditional poverty rate but is first under the Supplemental Poverty Measure.”

“Kentucky now has the fourth highest poverty rate among the 50 states, up from sixth in 1970.  Health outcomes and mortality rates are also poor here compared with the United States as a whole, in part because of high rates of obesity, diabetes and opioid addiction.”

“Mississippi had the highest poverty rate in both 1970 and 2016. … While the state’s overall poverty rate has fallen, it remains above 30 percent in most Delta counties, which now also face sustained population loss. In 2016, Louisiana and New Mexico were right behind, each with a 20 percent poverty rate.”

“Note: If counted as a state, Puerto Rico would have the highest poverty rate in 2016, at 44 percent. The District of Columbia, at 19 percent, has a higher poverty rate than all but three states. Under the Supplemental Poverty Measure, the District of Columbia, at 22 percent, has a higher poverty rate than any of the 50 states.”


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