Almost 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out onto the balcony of a motel in Memphis, the themes of his speech at Mason Temple from the night before likely still on his mind. We remember it now as the speech where King said he’d “seen the promised land” and so he didn’t fear death. What we forget is the speech’s actual subject: how the Memphis movement against unjust employment practices fit into the long struggle for freedom and human dignity.
We think of King, and the civil rights movement, as focused on the South. But by the time he went to Memphis, King’s attention had shifted to racism and economic inequality in the North. He and his wife, Coretta, had witnessed these injustices firsthand while living in the South End in the early 1950s while he earned his doctorate at Boston University.
In King’s famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he insisted that “we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” He urged his listeners to “go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
In Boston in April 1965, King led his first mass protest in the North against school segregation and slum conditions. He headed a march from the black community in Roxbury to a rally on the Common, where he declared, “The vision of the New Boston must extend into the heart of Roxbury.”
After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law that August, and stirred by the tragic Watts riot later that month, King moved to a slum on the West Side of Chicago to focus on eliminating Northern ghettos — metropolitan neighborhoods marked by racial stigma, involuntary segregation, and concentrated poverty. He was fighting, as he put it, the “inseparable twins” of racial and economic injustice. King demanded a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” which would constitutionally guarantee every citizen access to decent housing, quality education, and basic necessities. He sought not only to end poverty but to establish real equality. He called on all of us to help create a better America by adopting the following three principles:
First, he said, no one should be forced to endure poverty while others live in luxury. King believed the refusal of the rich to relinquish some wealth showed that they valued profit and property over people. These indefensible priorities of the wealthy were evident to the poor, who struggled to maintain their dignity — their sense of intrinsic worth and equal moral standing — and to hold off despair and bitterness.
Second, every person should have the basic material means necessary to take full advantage of their formal freedoms. “Negroes must not only have the right to go into any establishment open to the public, but they must also be absorbed into our economic system in such a manner that they can afford to exercise that right,” he wrote in 1964’s Why We Can’t Wait.
And, finally, productivity gains should benefit all, not just the owners of capital. Market efficiency, automation, and the thirst for profit push many into joblessness or insecure employment. This vulnerability to being exploited and marginalized makes organizing labor crucial, so workers can bargain for a greater share of the benefits of economic cooperation. And it justifies guaranteeing either basic income or a job for those whose labor technology has rendered less valuable.
In light of these principles, what would King advocate if he were still living in the South End? Here are some of the ideas he laid out in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?:
King believed government should subsidize private companies that hire and train workers with limited education. It should also expand the pool of public sector jobs in human services available to people living in disadvantaged communities. Colleges should be open to, and develop a curriculum for, those who in the past have not been successful in school but want to try their hand at it again. And there must be special employment opportunities for those who have dropped out of the labor market altogether and have subsequently lost the necessary work habits — where employers are patient while their employees cultivate or regain the relevant discipline.
This was the vision on King’s mind when he stepped onto that motel balcony in Memphis, only to be hit by the bullet that ended his life and shocked the nation. I doubt the bullet surprised him. What would is to see that ghettos are still with us, right here in Boston, and that our metropolitan area has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the nation. Here we are, a half-century after his assassination, and the vision of justice he tirelessly worked to realize is not yet embodied in our country or city. It’s exciting and proper that plans are in the works for a King memorial in Boston. Let this be an opportunity to renew our commitment to addressing injustices that King sacrificed so much to end.
Tommie Shelby is a professor of philosophy and African-American studies at Harvard, and co-editor of the new book “To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.