"Why Are There Forty Million Poor People in America?"

“And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.’ When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…”

--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Presidential Address in 1967.

Today as we remember the legacy of Dr. King, we shouldn’t forget that in the last year of his life, King spoke clearly about the need restructure the economy to meet the needs of workers. He linked the demands and campaigns for individual reforms to a larger analysis of the exploitative nature of the American economy, and urged his followers not to think of issues and campaigns as isolated from the larger fight for justice.

More and more this included an emphasis on organizing for workers’ rights: at the time of his assassination King was involved in the Memphis sanitation workers strike, stopping a Right-to-Work referendum in Oklahoma, and the Poor People’s Campaign. With these campaigns he criticized economic exploitation more sharply and directly than ever before. This shift, along with his increasingly direct and searing condemnation of the war in Vietnam, caused the establishment to forsake King. He was denounced by hundreds of newspaper editorial boards, including the New York Times and Washington Post, for essentially pushing the envelope too far.

Sixty years after King’s assassination by the establishment, we should honor his legacy by continuing to fight for his wider vision of a just economy, one where nobody who works for a living is forced to live in poverty. Many of King’s key demands and campaigns-- racial equity and equal access, workers rights, and end to poverty wages and exploitation, and the end of US militarism-- are still ongoing fights today.

We shouldn’t underestimate the relevance of our fight: a $15 minimum wage for every worker in the Twin Cities is a clear continuation of King’s agenda. Like King, we should contextualize our movement within a larger vision: Winning $15 in St Paul and Minneapolis can open the door to robust living wage policies across the Midwest, add to the growing national resistance against wealth inequality, help rebuild union density and a fighting labor movement, and sway the tide back towards justice for working people.

“Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?... The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

-- King in "Beyond Vietnam," April 4th, 1967