Erased from history: Martin Luther King’s forgotten economic rights campaign

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the more revered American figures of the twentieth century, as today’s national holiday bearing his name demonstrates. And his fight for racial equality is documented imn perhaps no better way than the fact that a half-black man is the President of the United States, a feat which would not have been possible in King’s era. But amongst the tidal wave of remembrance today for King’s racial efforts, you’ll hear not a peep about his other civil rights crusade. Late in his life, after King had already become the face of black civil rights, he started something called the Poor People’s Campaign. The idea was to unify low income Americans of all races so they could collectively fight for economic civil rights by using the same principles of nonviolent protest which had worked for him in his civil rights campaigns. Despite the high profile he gave the Poor People’s Campaign, the high stakes demands he made of the government on the campaign’s behalf, and the striking similarities between it and today’s Occupy movement, it’s a chapter of the Martin Luther King story which has simply been erased from most history books. Various theories have been floated as to how, and why, this vanishing act occurred…

Although King began planning the Poor People’s Campaign internally among his allies in 1967, it didn’t become a high profile public movement until early 1968. In fact he was in the midst of organizing a march on Washington, DC at the time of his assassination in April of that year. His planned march had reportedly been feared not only by conservatives like the then-Presidential hopeful Richard Nixon, but also by some of King’s own civil rights allies including then-President Lyndon Johnson. After King’s death, his group pushed onward with the movement but it ultimately lost steam without his leadership…

The close proximity of the Poor People’s Campaign to King’s assassination has led some to conclude that the planned march was simply overshadowed by his shocking death and therefore forgotten. Others have suggested that the campaign was lost to history simply because it failed to achieve any of its goals, in contrast to King’s racial equality efforts which ultimately led to fundamental societal change. But there’s another, darker view which says that any record of the fight for economic equality went away because the wealthy and powerful wanted it to. After all, granting civil rights to minorities such as voting and the right to sit in the front of the bus didn’t cost wealthy white people any of their money (see South Africa, whose white population granted the black majority civil rights out of fear that the worldwide boycott might cost them too much of their precious money). But economic equality makes it more difficult for the rich to get even richer. And so while every history book accurately celebrates Martin Luther King for the progress he made on civil rights, those same books seem to go out of their way to avoid educating anyone about his fight for economic rights, as if to try to keep future generations from getting any funny ideas about wanting economic rights of their own. And if the idea that the rich and powerful would erase a vital chapter of a celebrated historical figure’s life just to protect their money, take a look at the extent to which modern day media have gone to try to pretend that millions of Americans haven’t been participating in the economic rights based Occupy movement over the past two years. If King were still alive he’d be 84 years old. And he wouldn’t merely be supporting the Occupy movement; he’d be leading it. After all, he started the Occupy movement while he was still alive.