As hundreds rallied in Memphis, Tenn. on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, progressive civil rights and anti-poverty advocates urged Americans to honor the full breadth of the leader's efforts—which went far beyond his ubiquitous "I Have a Dream" speech and pushed for the eradication of poverty and an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam.
"In this brief celebratory moment of King's life and death we should be highly suspicious of those who sing his praises yet refuse to pay the cost of embodying King's strong indictment of the U.S. empire, capitalism, and racism in their own lives," wrote social critic Cornel West in an op-ed calling on Americans to resist "sterilizing" King's legacy.
If King were alive today, West argues, he would likely be silenced due to what would doubtlessly be a firm stance against U.S. military policy, the Trump administration's aggressive anti-immigrant campaigns, police brutality, and persistent income inequality.
"King's untimely death derailed what could've been the greatest economic justice movement of our time." —A.T. McWilliams, Quartz "Neoliberal revisionists thrive on the spectacle of their smartness and the visibility of their mainstream status—yet rarely, if ever, have they said a mumbling word about what would have concerned King, such as U.S. drone strikes, house raids, and torture sites, or raised their voices about escalating inequality, poverty, or Wall Street domination under neoliberal administrations—be the president white or black."
When King was killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he was in the city to rally sanitation workers who were fighting for fair wages and recognition of their union. The workers' struggle intersected with the issues King wished to highlight with his Poor People's Campaign, in which he hoped to find "middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other."
The campaign represented "the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity," King said less than a month before he was shot. "It's as pure as a man needing an income to support his family."
"Dr. King understood that true fairness begins with racial and economic equality," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) in a statement on Wednesday. "If we are to truly honor Dr. King's life and spirit, let us recommit ourselves to the fight for justice and no longer accept silence on the things that matter."
At Quartz, A.T. McWilliams wrote that the Poor People's Campaign is more relevant than ever 50 years after King's murder:
King's untimely death derailed what could've been the greatest economic justice movement of our time. Since then, American inequality has grown without interruption. The average income of the bottom half of American earners has stagnated over the past three decades, and they now account for 12 percent of U.S. wealth, while top one percent of American earners have tripled their average income...
And today, just as King propagated in his Poor People’s Campaign, government failures greatly contribute to wealth-loss across racial groups.
In the years leading up to his death, King was also an outspoken critic of U.S. military policy in Vietnam and called for "a radical revolution of values" to shift away from America's imperial impulses to subjugate the people of other nations or overthrow foreign governments.
"When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered," King said in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech, delivered exactly a year before he was killed.
A new generation appears poised to embrace King's legacy, as several teenagers marched 50 miles from Dundee, Mississippi to Memphis this week to commemorate the leader's work.
"Our hope is to not only honor all that Dr. King achieved, but to be part of continuing his work," Jarvis Ward, one of the teens' adult mentors, told a CBS News affiliate. "We want to show how racial justice, economic justice, and racial reconciliation can be advanced in and by the next generation."
"Dr. King called us to carry his vision forward when he said, 'Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world,'" said Rep. Keith Ellison in a statement. "With each march, chant, and strike, we speed up that day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."