This guest post is published as part of our blog series in conjunction with the Organization of American Historians conference in Philadelphia from April 4-7, 2019. Share using #OAH19.
By Sylvie Laurent, author of King and the Other America: The Poor People’s Campaign and the Quest for Economic Equality
In the wake of last November’s Midterms and in anticipation of the 2020 election, most pundits claim that progressives are caught in a bind: they either cater to their base, namely women, black, brown, LGBT and young people, alienating the white working class even further or they reach out to the latter and downplay the reality of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-immigrant policies. In other words, Democrats have to choose which “other America” they want to talk to. Such ubiquitous analysis, as sad as it is, falls prey to the entrenched idea that race and class are mutually exclusive and that you either run on a populist economic justice platform or you play the old diversity playbook. This narrow view ignores history and succumbs to the blinding power of racial ideology.
Interestingly enough though, Bernie Sanders’ new book is entitled Where We Go from Here, an explicit reference to Martin Luther King Jr.’s last essay. Sanders, who once waded into the flimsy rhetoric of “going beyond identity politics” now brings to light King’s illuminating thoughts on the race and class dialectics. To the question “Where do we go from here?” King answered: “let’s unite the “other America” across races.
Just a year before his assassination, King launched the Poor People’s Campaign which can be seen as a template for what a progressive strategy should be: building a multiracial coalition pushing for a transformative, inclusive, and radically egalitarian set of demands for economic justice that does not shy away from structural change.
But far from diluting race and ethnicity in a color-blind socialism, the members of the Poor People’s Campaign marched arm-in-arm for universal economic justice and specific recognition. Avoiding the pitfalls of class reductionism, they fashioned themselves as the avant-garde of the marginalized whose particular discontents could achieve reforms that would benefit society as a whole.
In 1967, it could have been tempting for King to share the Black Power movement’s disillusion with interracial coalitions, even more so with disaffected working-class whites, indeed unlikely to side with blacks. He could conversely have embraced social-democrat Bayard Rustin’s belief that it was now on time for mainstream politics: cutting deals with the white establishment of the Democratic Party and fitting in the larger scheme of liberal ideology. To Rustin, focusing on economic issues and securing the Civil Rights had become more relevant than demanding yet more racial justice. The inclusion Rustin advocated then subsequently subsumed radical demands.
Martin Luther King refused both sides of the alternative and forcefully combined race and class into a single narrative. The Poor People’s Campaign blueprint issued in 1968 called for a massive reallocation of wealth through public-jobs, guaranteed income, massive constructions of low-income housing, and the development of health and social care-related institutions. What is more, King called for an Economic Bill of Rights for the disadvantaged, resuscitating Franklin Roosevelt’s visionary appreciation of economic justice as a basic human right.
But what made the Poor People’s Campaign more powerful than previous interracial labor-based alliances was the will to recognize each group’s historical differences and to bring to the fore the specific harms made to them.
The list of grievances outlined by the campaigners included Chicanos’ cultural nationalist demands along with the respective claims of reviled poor Whites from Appalachia, Native-Americans or young urban blacks. For instance, King argued that America’s distinct indebtedness toward African-Americans imposed some specific reparative compensations. Superexploited, blacks were entitled to corrective race-based policies. But poor whites, King argued, had been collateral victims of America’s racial capitalism and they too needed massive wealth redistribution. By articulating a language about collective struggles that take on issues of racism and class exploitation, King sought to indent disadvantaged whites’ vested interest in whiteness. He called on us to debunk the assumption that vulnerable people in America were hopelessly divided along lines of race. Such divide had been historically manufactured. It had to be severed.
To many regards, the Civil Rights Movement has shaped the political parameters of America’s current political situation. Actually, many on the left have recently attempted to reenact King’s multiracial class politics in an operative and inspiring framework. Progressive candidates and activists throughout the country have been addressing interlocking oppressions, calling for significant wealth redistribution including universal health care, public jobs, decent minimum wage, and free colleges while embracing inclusivity-focused policies that give special recognition to minorities.
In an era of pervasive white identity politics, the Reverend William Barber has for instance boldly reenacted King’s Poor People’s Campaign in 2017. Contesting the assumption that one’s wounded identity trumps solidarity, Barber and other King’s torch-bearers suggest a powerful avenue to recapture American Democracy.