If you think Martin Luther King’s story ended with his ‘I have a dream’ speech, think again

If you think Martin Luther King’s story ended with his ‘I have a dream’ speech, think again


By: Deborah Burton
Date: 4 April 2018

martin_luther_king_jr_st_paul_campus_u_mnKing was not only the leading civil and political rights leader in America but he was also an internationalist. He was aware of, and informed by, the independence movements of the global south; he saw the dangers of a new USA neo-imperialist foreign policy – and not just in Vietnam but more widely. He was profoundly aware of the failure of the capitalist model and by the end of his life, was calling for a wholesale change redistribution of resources.

To try to better appreciate the man who was assassinated 50 years ago today, on 4 April 1968, is to begin with one critical truth: he was not the same person who delivered his 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech. For a host of reasons, the King ‘image’ is stuck in the 1963 ‘I have a dream’ moment. The 1963 March on Washington speech was a phenomenal moment and a turning point for American society. But King’s political journey from 1965 to his death was to take an even more radical direction as he began to campaign on the issues of anti-war and anti-poverty, alongside the ongoing civil rights struggle. This was to make him incredibly unpopular, but he stuck to his vision which, in essence can be summed up thus:

“The triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism are forms of violence that exist in a vicious cycle. They are inter-related, all inclusive and stand as barriers to our living in the Beloved Community…”

To mark 4 April 1968 is to try to understand better why King was murdered. It needs to be understood in terms of the threat King’s messages, mobilising and ongoing non violent direct action efforts posed to the American authorities (government, FBI, military). By 1967/68,  there was widespread rioting across many cities, the Vietnam war spiralling out of control and LBJ’s ‘war on poverty’ losing out to war spending. In this context, America’s leading moral voice was becoming even more outspoken as he talked of imminent social collapse, merging issues of race with economy and blistering anti-war rhetoric.

So, by April 1968, we see King’s ‘last great exertion’ – the Poor People’s Campaign. King, by now, was mobilising across all parts of civil society – faith and secular, black and white, Hispanic and Native American. As he said to labour leader Cesar Chavez in 1967, “all our struggles are really one”. And as ever, he had a strategic and ambitious plan to accompany the campaign. It was an Economic Bill of Rights and its first demand was a guaranteed minimum income. In all, this 5 point plan was a structure through which to deliver the radical redistribution of economic resources that would impact on all America.

There is so much to say about those latter years of King’s life and work, 1965-68 – so much more that should be known, appreciated, celebrated and learned from. To know King’s journey towards his Economic Bill of Rights in 1968 is to appreciate some of the equally significant yet much overlooked strands of King’s political analysis and solutions. Why does this matter? Because Martin Luther King’s thinking is relevant to our times today.

Were he alive now, he would be 89 years of age. He would have had so much to contribute to our witnessing of and resistance to the four decades of global neoliberal catastrophe. On every score that MLK spoke of in 1968 – poverty, racism, war machine, whether domestically or globally – the facts speak a terrible truth. We still need his framing and his solutions. We are even worse off now than then – we need to finish what he started.

Film screening: From Montgomery to Memphis

Wednesday 4 April, 6.30pm
A special screening of From Montgomery to Memphis will take place at Sands Film Cinema, London SE16, at 6.30pm. Event is free with suggested £5 donation. Book here

About the authors

Deborah Burton & Dionne Gravesande are part of MLK Global, a UK initiative of Tipping Point North South.

MLK Global marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Its initial aim is to advance a deeper understanding of the work, writings and activism of King with special regard for his Economic Bill of Rights and through the prism of his international and contemporary relevance.

Tipping Point North South is a non-profit co-operative that supports and initiates creative campaign-driven projects that support the global social justice agenda. It works across film, events and campaigns. Projects include cinema documentaries We Are Many and Open Bethlehem; Bethlehem Unwrapped (festivalWALL & short film); Make Apartheid History (Animation and video gallery); Five Percent Campaign (military spending); Attlee Nation & Festival.

Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking against the Vietnam War, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota, 27 April 1967.
Credit: Minnesota Historical Society