Martin Luther King and the Economic and Social Bill of Rights

By Tim O’Brien
Columnist

Editor’s note: The following commentary was originally published on January 20, 2014 on Tim O’Brien’s blog.

This weekend, our nation, state and communities celebrate and remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his accomplishments. It is a time when I have always felt inspired by his work, as a leader, and by the movement that he embodies. No Martin Luther King Day passes without me feeling emboldened and empowered to carry forward work toward building a better future.

I believe that King is our nation’s most important hero. Our nation has many great figures, well deserving of our honor, who strove and struggled to build our nation, by, of and for the people. Our nation is built on great ideals – democracy, justice, liberty and a decent life for all. But those ideals have all too often not been met in practice. For African-Americans, the experience was, instead, not just inequality, but the terror of violence and daily humiliation. The work of King, and the movement he led, was the struggle to breathe life into our country’s great ideals. His work was nothing short of making our nation, conceived in greatness, the great nation it was meant to be. He, and so many others, took on the face of grotesque oppression and successfully pushed it back.

King, himself, probably would bristle at the idea of himself being held up in this way. He was an organizer – yes, a community organizer. In that, he knew that, while sometimes a person can symbolize and personify a movement, the real truth is always that the movement is about us all, everyday people. It is people – all the people – who create change for the better, and it is the people – all the people – whose lives are made better from that work. On Martin Luther King Day, we honor King, himself, as well as the many people who struggled and sacrificed in the Civil Rights Movement and the movements for justice and equality before and since.

But King, himself, was extraordinary. He believed so purely in creating a better world. He believed deeply in the goodness of humanity and in our potential to set aside our differences for our common good. He would sacrifice of himself, over and over again, and, when he thought he had no energy left to give, would still muster a little more energy to give away to people thirsting for inspiration and hope.

Thankfully, we have, for the most part, put to rest the question of whether Martin Luther King should be honored as a national hero. Even those who, today, know that their own opinions differ from King’s values must at least give lip service to the rightness and greatness of his work. Of course, one of the side effects of that acceptance is that political figures who do not agree with King’s real values try to re-interpret his words to fit their own political agendas, such as saying that he would have opposed Affirmative Action, even when it is obvious that King would not have agreed with them. Other politicians try to appear to agree with King by lauding, post-fact, his leadership in winning reforms that are not controversial anymore, such such as doing away with overt “separate but equal” – even while those same politicians, to this day, perpetuate things, like voter suppression, that King would have told them are clearly wrongheaded. While it is easy to criticize defeated injustices, real courage is in challenging current injustices.

I think it is very important to point out, in this time of honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., that this kind of benign-sounding lip service to the memory of King is intended to prevent a more complete recounting of King’s actual values and what he stood for from shining a not-so-flattering light on the agendas many politicians are currently pressing in the halls of government.

Part of the pure goodness of King as a leader was his compulsion to stand up for what was right, no matter what the cost to himself. That was true of his work for civil rights and, in the years leading up to his assassination, it was why he took positions against the Vietnam War, against exploitation of people in other countries and for economic justice for all Americans.

His assassination occurred during his work to organize the Poor People’s Campaign, which was meant to follow up on the important work for civil rights – even more directly challenging the systems of injustice in the country by advocating for economic justice. He asked, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” (1) He spoke for economic justice as an essential part of the promise of our nation – “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” (2) And this was not only to advance communities of color, noting that white Americans also faced economic oppression and were likewise in need of reforms.

King challenged our nation to adopt reforms to make the free market work for everyone, African-American, Latino, white – everyone. Needless to say, in doing that, he was upsetting some very, very powerfulful monied interests in our country. “We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution,” he wrote, and clearly laid out that this meant that, “We must create full employment or we must create incomes…” (3)

The Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 was organized to demand adoption of an Economic and Social Bill of Rights to make the promise of our nation real for everyone. The Economic and Social Bill of Rights (in a draft written in February, 1968, before King’s assassination (4)) was to proclaim:

  • “The Right of every employable citizen to a decent job.” It is worth pointing out how this called for “good jobs”, not just “dead end jobs,” and was clear that it should be the responsibility of the country to ensure that this happened. The draft Economic and Social Bill of Rights proposed an ambitious federal job-creation program to make this a reality.
  • “The right of every citizen to a minimum income.” A guaranteed standard of living for people, “too young, too old or too handicapped to work.”
  • “The right of a decent house and the free choice of neighborhood.” The draft Economic and Social Bill of Rights challenged that the more affluent were benefitted when, “Federally subsidized credit built suburbs and federally supported roads to access [them],” while other public spending displaced neighborhoods where whites and people of color of more modest means lived. It pointed out that, amidst a paucity of support for affordable housing, people of modest means were left to suffer in slum housing conditions. The proposed solution was the creation of many more units of decent, affordable housing.
  • “The right to an adequate education.” Noting gross inequities in educational attainment along racial lines and that “only out-and-out racists believe that this tragedy is a consequence of inherent deficiency on the part of the child…”, the draft Economic and Social Bill of Rights proposed, “a massive effort to upgrade the education available to” both children of color and white children and to fund higher education so that all Americans could afford to attend.
  • “The right to participate in the decision making process.” The draft Economic and Social Bill of Rights placed importance on participatory democracy, “political action and voting protection.”
  • “The right to the full benefit of modern science in health care.” Noting the inhuman differences in health and mortality based upon income, the draft Economic and Social Bill of Rights proposed extending Medicare to everyone in America.

This draft (5) of the Economic and Social Bill of Rights was clear that greater economic equity should be considered as part of America’s great ideals and Constitutional promise: “Without these rights, neither the black and white poor, and even some who are not poor, can really possess the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. With these rights, the United States could, by the two hundredth anniversary of its Declaration of Independence, take giant steps toward redeeming the American dream.”

The assassination of Martin Luther King took the great measure of the energy away from the Poor People’s Campaign. It still went on as planned that summer, but it ended, having not achieved the goals for which King and so many others strove. As we well know, the objectives of the campaign, expressed in the Economic and Social Bill of Rights, for the most part, have yet to be achieved. Far from it, these are all, very much, front burner issues in our current politics. In the areas where there have been advances, those advances are now under powerful attack. In other areas, especially in the area of jobs, not having in place now what King advocated then makes middle class and poor people worse off now than they would have been. And when elected officials, such as President Barack Obama and our own Governor Dannel Malloy, press for changes that advance King’s ideals, they must labor against difficult political headwinds.

Given what Martin Luther King advocated for when he was with us, it is clear that, were he alive today, he would be pressing hard for significant change. It is no wonder than many politicians of today will spend their Martin Luther King Day glossing over the full depth of what King believed in. If they acknowledged his real policy objectives, they would have to admit that they disagree with what King would have wanted them to do.

So let us make this Martin Luther King Day one of renewing our commitment to the movement and the great and important objectives for which King gave his life. Let us not allow people who oppose justice, equality and fairness for all to dissuade us from doing what is right through their various tactics of harsh mean-spiritedness and silver-tongued distraction. King taught us that people of ill intent would try to make it difficult for people who stand-up what is right. He also taught us that, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (6)

We can, in our nation, our state and our communities have a better, fairer, more just, more equitable future for ourselves and generations to come – one that we can all share. Now, more than ever, we must renew the work that our great national hero, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., championed.


1 Joe Fassler, “‘All Labor Has Dignity’: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Fight for Economic Justice”, The Atlantic, February 22, 2011
2 Mark Engler, “Dr. Martin Luther King’s Economics: Through Jobs, Freedom”, The Nation, January 15, 2010
3 Mark Engler, “Dr. Martin Luther King’s Economics: Through Jobs, Freedom”, The Nation, January 15, 2010
4 “Economic and Social Bill of Rights”, King Center online document repository
5 After King’s assassination, the Committee of 100 created the version of the Economic and Social Bill of Rights that was advocated during the Campaign, which called for “a meaningful job at a living wage for every employable citizen.”, “a secure and adequate income for all who cannot find jobs or for whom employment is inappropriate”, “access to land as a means to income and livelihood”, “access to capital as a means of full participation in the economic life of America” and “the right of the people to ‘play a truly significant role’ in shaping government programs design and implementation”, Amy Nathan Wright,“Unfinished Business”, (2007) pages 195–197
6 NPR Staff “King’s Son And Friend Talk New Memorial, Media”, NPR website