Martin Luther King Day 1998:
Ruling class must 'yield to the mandates of justice!'

By Allen Harris

This month brings the 69th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year brings the 30th anniversary of the Poor People's Campaign, which King was to have led in May 1968 in Washington. Instead, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis.

When the bourgeoisie looks back on King, it likes to focus on the man who was a Southern Negro preacher, a tremendous orator and drum major for justice. All of which is entirely true. There was no one else like him. But the rulers don't dwell on the last years of King's life, when his vision was no longer that of a Southern Negro seeking racial equality but of an American seeking economic justice on a national level. King's focus was on poverty and his perspective was turning away from color and toward class. "Our economy must become more person-centered than property-centered and profit-centered," King said in late 1967.

When the civil rights movement marched on Washington in 1963 to press for passage of the bill President Kennedy had introduced, the leaders were welcomed by the ruling class. Five years later, when King proposed a campaign of civil disobedience in the same city to demand relief from the oppression of poverty, the White House and Congress were hostile.

The program of the Poor People's Campaign called for spending $30 billion a year to eliminate poverty. At the very least, it called for Congress to enact legislation for full employment, a guaranteed annual income and the construction of 500,000 low-income housing units per year.

Again, the contrast with the March on Washington could not be clearer. In 1963, the government rolled out the red carpet for the marchers. In 1968, when the Poor People's Campaign came -- without King -- the demonstrators lived in a muddy shanty on the Mall called Resurrection City. For two months they lived there, demonstrating and marching on the various federal departments and being ignored. Finally the police drove out the Poor People's Campaign in a raid.

King said in late 1967: "We've got to make it known that until our problem is solved, America may have many, many days, but they will be full of trouble. There will be no rest, there will be no tranquility in this country until the nation comes to terms with our problem." He also said: "Something is wrong with capitalism as it now stands in the United States. We are not interested in being integrated into this value structure. Power must be relocated, a radical redistribution of power must take place. ... "We must formulate a program and we must fashion the new tactics which do not count on government good will, but instead compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice."

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