Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final years, from 1965 to 1968, are mostly missing from the media’s coverage of his life.
As Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon explain, we get the familiar footage—King battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963); reciting his dream of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963); marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama (1965); and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis (1968)—but nothing about his activities during those “missing” years.
They are the years during which he voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War and organized what he considered to be a “new phase” of the Civil Rights Movement, the Poor People’s Campaign. A few months before announcing the Campaign, King sent a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson in which he focused on the need for economic equality.
Here are some excerpts:
The chaos and destruction now spreads through our cities is a blind revolt against the revolting conditions which you so courageously set out to remedy as you entered office in 1964, the conditions have not changed.
And though the aimless violence and destruction may be contained through military means, only drastic changes in the life of the poor will provide the kind of order and stability you desire. . .
I do not think we are helpless; we are only acting helplessly. I should like to offer a single proposal that I am convinced will be as effective as it is just. Every single out-break without exception has substantially been ascribed to gross unemployment, particularly among young people. In most cities unemployment of negro youth is greater than the unemployment level of the depression ’30’s.
Let us do one simple direct thing — let us end unemployment totally and immediately. In the depression days the nation was close to prostrate on the brink of bankruptcy, yet it created the WPA to make millions of jobs instantly available for all existing levels of skill. The jobs were tailored to the man, not the man to the job in recognition of the emergency. Training followed employment, it did not precede it and become an obstacle to it.
What we did three decades ago during an economic holocaust can easily be done today in the comfort of prosperity.
I propose specifically the creation of a national agency that shall provide a job to every person who needs work, young and old, white and Negro. Not one hundred jobs when 10,000 are needed. Not some cheap way out. Not some frugal device to maintain a balanced budget within an unbalanced society.
I propose a job for everyone, not a promise to see if jobs can be found. There cannot be social peace when a people have awakened to their rights and dignity and to the wretchedness of their lives simultaneously. If our government cannot create jobs, it cannot govern. It cannot have white affluence amid black poverty and have racial harmony.
Who will stand up today to honor King’s memory by rejecting the “frugal device to maintain a balanced budget within an unbalanced society” and demanding that we “end unemployment totally and immediately”?