Today, as we remember and honor one of our country’s leading exponents of activism in the fight for unity and equal opportunity, we also face ongoing divided government in Congress and in many parts of the country. These divisions have resulted in inactivity and a tedious inability to get things done—important problems remain unsolved and even routine matters prove too tough to finish.
Dr. King had a lot to say about the need for people of good will to unify around issues that demand action, especially the interlocked issues of poverty and race. Although his most famous accomplishments and words involved race equity and civil rights, he was killed while pursuing the essential next step: economic justice. Dr. King advocated for the government’s role in ensuring a humane safety net, a fair opportunity for upward mobility, and a voice for people in poverty – some power – to determine what the government would do on these issues. He had shifted his focus, highlighting that racial justice could not be complete without economic justice.
One year before his assassination, Dr. King gave a speech on poverty at Stanford University (his “other America” speech). Pursuit of economic justice had provoked backlash and hatred on the streets of Chicago and firm resistance from people who had previously supported the civil rights movement in the South. He noted:
[W]e must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.
In the same speech Dr. King stressed that, while the changing of hearts and minds is essential to the ultimate goal of equality, legislation—a role for government—is also required. He noted that, while you cannot force a man to love you, you can prevent him from lynching you. Laws, enforcement, and programs are needed to realize the dream of economic justice for all.
Later, while he and his allies were in the midst of launching a major effort on poverty in Washington, Dr. King went to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. In his last sermon (the famous “mountaintop” speech), he explained to the audience that the cause was urgent, and not something for religious patience:
It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.
Today, our legislatures seem to be under the control of extreme elements that refuse to compromise or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to participate in governing with people who do not think exactly like them. We live in an era where compromise is equated with weakness. Too often, elected officials seem to prefer no action to accomplishments that are not fully aligned with their ideas. In the face of injustice and poverty crying out for action, our country’s progress has been held hostage by extremists of stasis.
Dr. King had things to say about extremism. Earlier in his career, he had been jailed in Birmingham for leading nonviolent disobedience to the Jim Crow laws. In a public letter, moderate “liberal” clergy had criticized him for these tactics and called them—and him—extremist. In response, Dr. King explained how he at first resisted that accusation, but then realized he should embrace it:
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? … Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
The cause of economic justice is still urgent, and it too often is blocked by extremists of stasis. Today, as we ponder Dr. King’s legacy, we should understand the important role of government in ensuring fair opportunities for upward mobility, and we should welcome creative extremists in that just cause.