Martin Luther King’s Radical Legacy, From the Poor People’s Campaign to Black Lives Matter

Martin Luther King’s Radical Legacy, From the Poor People’s Campaign to Black Lives Matter

Those who invoke Martin Luther King to criticize Black Lives Matter misunderstand the life and legacy of America’s favorite civil rights leader.

The Poor People's March, which took place just weeks after King's assassination in 1968, reflected his vision of economic justice as racial justice (Library of Congress)

“The only thing I ask is that they not take the freeways. Dr. King would never take a freeway.” So said Kasim Reed, the liberal African American mayor of Atlanta, in response to Black Lives Matter protests in King’s birth city last summer. Noted conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly has likewise postulated with great confidence that “Dr. King would not participate in a Black Lives Matter protest.” Reed and O’Reilly were quickly lambasted for their lack of historical accuracy: Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, led the iconic 1965 march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge and countless other acts of disruptive civil disobedience. But their sentiment reveals our popular misunderstanding of the life and legacy of America’s favorite civil rights leader.

Liberals and conservatives alike are quick to appropriate Martin Luther King, Jr. to justify their political aims and buttress their opinions of social movements. Corporations such as Apple have used his words and image to sell their wares, while pundits of all persuasions have invoked his name to browbeat younger activists and their tactics. Such is the case with Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), commonly known as Black Lives Matter (BLM). Often denigrated in public discourse, Black Lives Matter is the largest movement for racial justice since the civil rights movement of King’s day.

What is never told in the now canonical story of Dr. King is the limited popularity that he endured throughout much of his public life. Even as the civil rights movement secured landmark victories like the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King remained a highly polarizing figure, with 45 percent rating him favorably and 46 percent negatively in Gallup polls. And this marked the peak of his popularity in the 1960s: after a gradual climb in the previous years—earning him a spot on Gallup’s most admired list in 1964–65—King’s popularity plummeted again in 1966. By August of that year, the man who had won a Nobel Peace Prize only two years earlier had a 63 percent negative poll rating, with a mere 12 percent of all Americans expressing a “highly favorable opinion” of him. Later that year, the Harris Survey asked whether Martin Luther King was “helping or hurting the Negro cause of civil rights.” Half of white respondents believed he was hurting the cause. Only 36 percent said he was “helping.”

And it wasn’t just King: even at its height, the civil rights movement faced a steady stream of criticism from conservatives and even many liberals. Most of the movement’s campaigns had been met with widespread disapproval: according to a 1961 Gallup Poll, a full 61 percent said they disapproved of what the “Freedom Riders” were doing. That same poll showed that the majority of Americans (57 percent) felt the “Freedom buses,” lunch-counter sit-ins, and “other demonstrations” would hurt black folks’ chances of being integrated in the South.

Our contemporary version of King is strikingly different. A 1999 Gallup study determined that Martin Luther King was one of the most admired figures of the twentieth century, second only to Mother Theresa, and in 2011 Gallup rated his favorability in the United States at 94 percent. With a national monument and federal holiday to boot, King’s status as a national hero is by now indisputable.

Will it take the country fifty years to recognize the Movement for Black Lives as King’s true inheritor? In September 2015 PBS News Hour/Marist pollsters asked survey respondents, “From what you have heard or seen about Black Lives Matter, do you mostly agree or mostly disagree with Black Lives Matter, or don’t you have an opinion either way?” Only 34 percent of adults mostly agreed with BLM. Less than a third of Americans believed BLM focused on “real issues of racial discrimination,” while 55 percent said the movement distracts from those issues.

A poll conducted the same month by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal showed largely the same results: only 32 percent of Americans had mostly positive views of BLM; 29 percent had mostly negative views and 39 percent were neutral. Just as in 1966, 57 percent of those polled believed that the Freedom Rides, sit-ins, and other demonstrations were hurting the civil rights cause, 55 percent of those polled in 2015 believed that BLM actions where distracting from the issues.

These polling numbers beg another set of questions: what do MLK and BLM have in common to draw such widespread scorn?

One factor could be their shared politics. The real King stands in stark contrast to our current pop image of him. An avowed democratic socialist who called for the redistribution of wealth in several speeches and sermons, Martin Luther King was loathed in many quarters. He was stalked by the FBI, undermined by the Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and labeled “the most dangerous man” alive and a “notorious liar” by J. Edgar Hoover. King’s own board of directors at Southern Christian Leadership Conference censored him for his opposition to the Vietnam War. And we already know what the public at large thought of him. 

Half a century later, much the same is true of Black Lives Matter, whose program is saturated with the radicality that King embraced decades ago but goes a few steps further. On August 1, 2016, the Movement for Black Lives released “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice,” a detailed platform drafted by over fifty organizations and recommending forty-plus policy initiatives.

At the center of the M4BL coalition sits the national Black Lives Matter network, co-created by two queer black women, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Alicia Garza, and their sister-comrade, Opal Tometi. The movement they have helped incubate focuses on organizing the most marginalized: domestic workers, immigrants from the black diaspora, and victims of police brutality, particularly trans folks of color. In other words, a black, queer, transnational feminism with an emphasis on economic justice is shaping our political moment. The M4BL’s platform reads with great clarity on this matter:

We believe in elevating the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim, formerly and currently incarcerated, cash poor and working class, disabled, undocumented, and immigrant. We are intentional about amplifying the particular experience of state and gendered violence that Black queer, trans, gender nonconforming, women and intersex people face.

M4BL, then, extends the radical legacy of Dr. King while transcending many of the limitations of the movement’s civil rights forebears, particularly on questions of gender and sexuality.

Above all, M4BL builds upon King’s commitments to economic justice and global solidarity. Toward the end of his life, King turned his interest primarily to the question of economic justice. The Poor People’s Campaign, his last crusade, posited that the country must devote massive amounts of resources to the eradication of poverty. Its platform, presented in late 1967, made three major demands of the federal government: first, a “$30 billion annual appropriation for a real war on poverty”; second, “Congressional passage of full employment and guaranteed income legislation [a guaranteed annual wage]”; and third, “Construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year until slums were eliminated.”

While civil rights campaigns had focused on gaining greater access to the system as structured, the Poor People’s Campaign mandated a restructuring of the system. It challenged the very foundations of American capitalism. If the prevailing theme of the civil rights movement was “integration,” the Poor People’s Campaign asked: integration into what? As King noted on more than one occasion, it was not enough to integrate the lunch counter—one needed the money to buy food once sitting there. On April 4, 1967, as the Vietnam War continued to siphon off resources from the War on Poverty, King proclaimed that a society that spent more money on war than caring for the people was heading toward spiritual death.

At the outset, BLM was focused primarily on issues of police brutality and state violence. Less than two years after it emerged onto the national stage, the movement vastly expanded its purview with the release of the M4BL platform. M4BL seeks to “achieve a complete transformation of the current systems, which place profit over people.” The platform calls on the federal government to “pass a $2 to $4 trillion policy that would both create government jobs for Black workers, and subsidize businesses to hire Black workers.” Like the Poor People’s Campaign, M4BL advocates for a federal works program that pays a living wage and as well as a “guaranteed minimum livable income for all Black people.” Like King, M4BL also emphasizes the importance of workers’ right to organize.

In a 1966 planning meeting for the Poor People’s Campaign, King made his critique of capitalism explicit: “Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying something is wrong . . .  with capitalism. . . . There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” King paired this structural critique with a strong commitment to domestic and international solidarity with the poor. He was also clear about the coalition it would take to bring about a revolution of values: the Poor People’s Campaign called on “the swelling masses of young people in this country who were disenchanted with this materialistic society” as well as “the millions of non-Negro poor—Indians, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Appalachians and others” to join with African Americans in a common struggle.

So too does the M4BL platform call for “a shared struggle with all oppressed people,” rooted in the understanding that “collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.” King’s “giant triplets” of materialism (capitalism), militarism (war), and racism—along with sexism—are named early on in the M4BL document:

[W]e know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.

If BLM’s approach to economic justice (and its poor showing in polls) mirror Dr. King’s, so too does its emphasis on civil disobedience as a tactic. The highway shut-downs and disruption of commerce decried by the likes of Kasim Reed and Bill O’Reilly are direct analogs of the marches and sit-ins led by King, who today is widely heralded as the poster child for civil resistance. Both the Selma campaign and the Birmingham movement—including the 1963 Children’s March, during which children as young as six confronted police dogs and fire hoses—were seen as damaging to the cause. With a little historical hindsight, being “divisive” pays off.

In keeping with the radical turn of the Poor People’s Campaign, King responded to the criticism of his tactics and to the crisis of poverty with an escalation of civil disobedience. The plan for the Poor People’s Campaign called for a massive and militant nonviolent protest in Washington, D.C., blocking all the major thoroughfares leading to the Capitol building, combined with a huge tent city of the poor on the National Mall. Some of the participants, King anticipated, would arrive in buggies being pulled by mules.

It is this Dr. King that the Movement for Black Lives has sought to revive with the social media and direct action campaign to #ReclaimMLK. Last year on Martin Luther King Day, Black.Seed—an organization led by queer people of color—shut down the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco, prompting observers to claim that Dr. King would have opposed their methods. One aggrieved driver posted on Twitter that Dr. King would never shut down a bridge—quite a claim when just the previous year, the film Selma, in which the Edmund Pettis Bridge is the central battleground, had been in the running for the world’s most important movie awards.

Black Lives Matter is not a rejection of King and the civil rights movement but an extension of their radical legacy. Those who demonize one while romanticizing the other would benefit from studying both a little more deeply. Just because a movement isn’t popular, doesn’t mean it isn’t working.

Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a Visiting Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.