Everyone commends Dr. King for his fight for civil rights, but too often, we forget that King also fought against poverty, indeed was in the midst of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign when he was killed in 1968. In this commentary for CACG, Michael Sean Winters reflects on King’s legacy and our challenge. 

This past weekend, I watched the movie “The Help” for the first time. The movie tells the tale of a white woman writer who begins interviewing black maids in Jim Crow Mississippi, writes up their stories, and publishes them as a book. When it comes to emotionally powerful movies, I am a blubberer and I found myself in tears at several points in the movie.

One of the themes of the movie is the way that the social degradation of Jim Crow went hand-in-hand with the economic degradation of black Americans. The maids earned minimal wages, they did not participate in, nor benefit from, Social Security or unemployment insurance, they had no savings or other assets to speak of. When the book is published, and the author distributes the $600 advance among the maids, they each receive $47 and they treat it like manna from heaven. One cannot say which preceded which, the social degradation or the economic degradation, because slavery entailed both, but one thing is certain: It is easier to subject the poor to social degradation. They are easily made the victims of what Pope Francis has called a “society of exclusion.”

It is entirely understandable that when we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we recall his achievements in winning civil rights for black Americans. But, Dr. King’s commitment to civil rights did not stand alone. It was rooted in his understanding of the Gospels. For example, Dr. King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam was linked to this understanding: He believed Christians were called to non-violence.

Dr. King’s fight against poverty was similarly rooted in the Gospel call for justice for the poor. King was deeply committed to the understanding of liberty at the heart of the American founding documents, a political liberty that guaranteed one man, one vote, that prohibited discrimination before the law, still less in the law, and other political rights. But, King was a Baptist preacher too. He understood that freedom meant more than the removal of chains. In the hymn “Lift Every Voice,” we sing of the “harmonies of liberty,” which suggests freedom was something more than the individualism that has run rampant in our culture. A legal freedom can exist along side an economic enslavement. King understood this in the depths of his being.

In his most famous speech, the “I have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Dr. King said:

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. 

Four years later, Dr. King launched the Poor People’s Campaign. He knew that the situation of black Americans in the urban north was not much better than in the rural south. Many black Americans had made the trek northward but had only graduated from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. There were no legal impediments in the north, only cultural and economic ones, but those were enough to produce a different kind of slavery. King advocated for a universal income for all Americans, he criticized many of the government’s approaches to alleviating poverty, he advocated for better health care. His fight for social justice did not end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. King wanted a society that was true to the Christian values it professed but so often did not honor. How little has changed since that time.

The next year, King went to Memphis to join with striking sanitation workers. The men who worked on the garbage trucks were paid low wages, they worked in very unsafe conditions, dramatized by the recent, and horrifying, deaths of two sanitation workers, killed by the trash compacting machines they tended, and they were denied the right to join Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). It was in Memphis that King was killed. He died a martyr for labor and the poor, as well as for black Americans. How different the landscape of America might be today if he had lived for many more years, if he, and not Jerry Falwell, would have been the face of Christianity in America in the 1980s.

The face of Christianity today, in America and throughout the world, is Pope Francis. How often do his words sound, to American ears, to contain echoes of Dr. King! In less than a year, Pope Francis has reminded all Catholic Christians that our commitment to the poor is not simple charity, it is at the heart of the Gospel and demands justice as well as charity. He, like King, denounces not only the economic fact of poverty, but all the exclusion and pain that is associated with poverty. He, like King, has the smell of his sheep. He, like King, urges us on, never straying from our religious heritage but, indeed, deepening ourselves in that heritage.

I do not know if Pope Francis has ever heard the hymn “Lift Every Voice” but I can imagine him singing the last stanza with enthusiasm:

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou who hast by Thy might, Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land.

And, I imagine him singing it, arm in arm, with Dr. King whose memory our nation cherishes still. Remembering King is not enough. We are called to keep on working for his vision of justice, justice for minorities, justice for the poor, justice for workers, justice for the excluded, work on behalf of that justice is what it means to be “True to our God, True to our native land.”