One of the most remarkable people I got to know as a young reporter in the 1980s was Myles Horton, whom Rosa Parks called “the first white man I ever trusted.”
Horton helped start the Highlander Center in Tennessee, which became a cradle of the civil rights movement. He was a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he told me he first met when King was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
As Horton and I sat outside his hilltop cabin at Highlander one afternoon, enjoying a view of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance, he talked about King and his legacy.
In focusing on King’s work for racial justice, Horton said, many people ignore the fact that he was equally passionate about economic justice. “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter,” Horton quoted King as saying, “if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and cup of coffee?
Economic justice was at the heart of King’s career as an activist, from the Montgomery bus boycott that thrust him into the national spotlight in 1955 to the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike where he was assassinated in 1968.
Conservative extremists last year called President Barack Obama a “socialist” for pushing through what had been a Republican plan for healthcare reform. But some of the things King advocated five decades ago, such as a government-guaranteed minimum income, really did approach socialism.
The public was scared of communism in King’s day, so his enemies often called him a “communist” for challenging America’s status quo. A photograph of King with Horton at Highlander was posted on billboards around the South with the headline, “Martin Luther King at Communist Training School.”
“I’m not talking about communism,” King later replied. “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis.”
Many of King’s proposals for achieving economic justice seem quaint, even far-fetched, today. He was a minister, not an economist. A half-century of history since then has underscored the power of entrepreneurial capitalism to improve society. But it also has shown the pitfalls of corrupt, monopolistic capitalism and unchecked corporate power.
This is a good time to review some of King’s thoughts about economic justice. The King holiday Monday comes at a time when Wall Street has recovered from the Great Recession, but Main Street still has a long way to go. Meanwhile, politicians talk about making drastic cuts in America’s social safety net.
“The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst,” King said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. “The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent.”
In a 1967 speech, King said: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
Because King was a Christian minister, his words often echoed those of the Biblical savior worshipped by both liberals and conservatives. In a speech only days before he was murdered, King had this to say: “One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.
“It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, ‘That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.’ That’s the question facing America today.”
While much has changed since King’s time, much else has not. That is why his words remain so powerful and relevant. King had a gift for bringing America’s strengths and weaknesses into sharp focus and inspiring us to do better than we have.