In March 1968, weeks before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. visited a school in Marks, Miss. He saw something there that witnesses said moved the activist to tears.
Poverty was disproportionately high among black Americans everywhere. But, down South in Marks, nearly 36 percent of the entire population lived in poverty, according to the 1960 census.
President Lyndon Johnson (D), deeply concerned about the number of Americans making do without indoor plumbing, basic health care, or adequate food, had already launched his Great Society social programs, aimed at eliminating poverty and racial injustice. He pioneered Head Start for preschool children, the beginnings of both Medicare and Medicaid, and an Economic Opportunity Act. Over the next decade, those programs helped slice the share of Americans living in poverty from about 22 percent to just under 14 percent.
But Johnson escalated the Vietnam War, and the growing number of Republicans and conservative Democrats -- elected as a backlash to the Great Society -- resisted more funding for social programs, even for inner-city rat control. By the time King showed up in Marks, hope for the war on poverty was fading fast, said Nathan K. Kotz, a journalist and historian who wrote the 1971 book, “Let Them Eat Promises, The Politics of Hunger in America”
In Marks, King saw a schoolteacher distributing lunch to her students. The menu: one slice of apple and a few crackers. King’s evolution from race leader and civil rights activist to anti-poverty crusader was complete, said Lewis V. Baldwin, a professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University who has written and edited seven books about King.
But nearly 45 years after his death, King’s commitment to eradicating poverty and the human indignity that often follows ranks among the least understood and most misquoted and manipulated aspects of his life and work. Today, with poverty approaching levels unseen since the 1960s and a Congress increasingly opposed to expanded social services or spending, understanding what King wanted to do just before his death and what remains to be done seems especially pertinent.
“There’s this tendency to freeze Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered the 'I Have a Dream,' speech,” said Baldwin. “But King’s concern, his activism, went well beyond this call for integration to build and focus on this issue on economic justice and the issue of international peace.”
By 1968, King had led efforts to integrate public facilities and give African Americans full access to the ballot. And he had delivered one of the most iconic speeches of the 20th Century on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But he had reached a dispiriting conclusion, Kotz said. As long as poverty continued to hold a tight grasp on the lives of 38.6 million people -– 22 percent of Americans -- the ability to ride a bus or train and sit where space was available, to eat at a lunch counter, drink from public water fountains -- even to vote -- had limited meaning.
Frustrated, King began criticizing the Johnson administration and the Vietnam War. That March, he officially launched The Poor People’s Campaign in Marks. Around the same time, King demanded $30 million for anti-poverty programs and 500,000 affordable housing units and began making plans for civil disobedience in Washington.
The Poor People's Campaign failed to excite some of King’s oldest allies -- people who had been with him during the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Ala., and the demonstrations that followed the bombing of Birmingham, Ala.’s, 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four little girls. Even some who had allowed their children to protest Birmingham’s segregated lunch counters and face down Bull Connor, fire hoses and police dogs, (See VIDEO here) weren’t so sure.
“At the time, blacks tended to view [President Lyndon] Johnson in the same historical frame that they saw Lincoln,” said Lawrence Eldridge, a religious scholar and historian who wrote the 2011 book "Chronicles of a Two-Front War: Civil Rights and Vietnam in the African American Press.” ”Sometimes they elevated him above Lincoln because his contributions –- the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act -- had been so enormous and, of course, current.”
But for King, commitment to reducing inequality meant speaking publicly about Johnson’s shifting priorities, and challenging private landlords and city governments that shortchanged poor communities with lower-quality services like trash pickup, building inspections and street-cleaning.
King was also a vocal an advocate of government policies that would increase employment and of laws mandating that employers pay living wages. He utterly opposed “right to work” laws.
In 2011, when Wisconsin government employees occupied the state capitol building and protested Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to limit the influence of unions, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview questioned whether King would have supported the workers' protests.
“Don’t be mistaken,” Baldwin said. “King was a public supporter of the rights of workers to collectively bargain and earn a living wage. He was a champion for humanity and a prophetic figure because he was willing to question and critique his country.”
When King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., a few weeks after his visit to Marks, he was there to draw attention to the struggles of a group of sanitation workers, their wages and work conditions. In the decades since, wages have stagnated, union membership has plummeted and the Great Recession pushed poverty levels to four-decade highs.
Today, 46.2 million Americans -- 15.1 percent of the population -- live in poverty, according to the most recent census data. Poverty remains more pronounced among black and Latino Americans. But, poverty is also more common in the South, where nearly 17 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
For Carol Bragg, a longtime activist who is part of the JPMorgan Chase/The King Center’s civil rights scholars team working to determine which of King speeches, letters and papers to make available on the Internet, it’s amazing that people know so little about King’s views on economic justice.
One day, Bragg came across a King sermon she had never heard or read before. It centered around the idea that there are five levels of love. The lowest form of love -- utilitarian love -- is the kind of love a slave master has for a slave, or a business owner for underpaid employees, she said. King called for a “revolution of values.” That struck her as just what America now needs to attack growing inequality.
“We need to become a less thing-centered society and become a people-centered community, where human needs are always primary,” said Brag.
CORRECTION: This story has been changed to correctly describe the composition of Congress in the late 1960s. The Democratic Party maintained a majority in the House of Representatives until the 1990s.