A Dream Deferred: Continuing Dr. King’s Economic Justice Agenda, the “Poor Peoples Campaign”

As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the insurmountable legacy he left the world, we are also reminded that some of his visionary work was cut short by his assassination on April 4th, 1968. Shortly before his death, Dr. King embarked on a new social justice initiative to address the fundamental causes of poverty within marginalized communities. This initiative: “The Poor Peoples Campaign”, began around 1965 and was rooted in the fundamentals of economic justice– access to gainful employment with a living wage, good education, and decent affordable housing. The campaign’s agenda included five objectives: (1) the guarantee of a meaningful job for every employable citizen, (2) a secure and adequate income for all who cannot find work or are unemployable, (3) access to land as means to income, (4) access to capital as means to full participation in the economy, and (5) recognition by law of the right of all people to participate in the design and implementation of antipoverty programs. Dr. King understood early on that capitalism, when employed with malicious intent, restricts access, and reinforces systems of inequality especially caste or class systems which disproportionately target the most vulnerable in our society and marginalized.

Martin Luther King visit to Robert Taylor Homes, Black and White Photo
Untitled, Martin Luther King visit to Robert Taylor Homes, Black and White Photo. 1965, Photographer Robert Sengstacke (1943-2017), Repository Art Institute of Chicago (https://www.artic.edu/artworks/241244/untitled-martin-luther-king-at-robert-taylor-homes-chicago)

During the Chicago chapter of the Poor Peoples Campaign (termed the “Chicago Freedom Movement”), Dr. King joined with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) to address the issues of segregation in employment, education, and housing in the Black community. During the Chicago Freedom Movement, King and his family moved to the 1500 block of South Hamlin on the westside of Chicago. Dr. King’s marches to address segregation, racial violence, and Black housing conditions included Marquette Park, Gage Park and a visit to the Robert Taylor Homes.

In addition to the demonstrations “against de facto segregation in education, housing, and employment”, SCLC initiated Operation Breadbasket, targeting several businesses operating in the Black community to add more employment opportunities for Black people at their companies. After a series of race riots broke out on the city’s west side, agreements with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and the Mortgage Bankers Association were reached to improve housing conditions through building level restrictions and to expand mortgage lending to people of all races.

Unfortunately, Chicago still remains one of the most segregated cities in the country as discussed in the Metropolitan Planning Council’s (MPC) Cost of Segregation Report. Although many of the housing developments have since been demolished, the issue of gentrification has become a new antithesis of economic justice in BIPOC communities. As highlighted by the MPC in their response to the Cost of Segregation Report, “throughout the Chicago region, low-income renters and homeowners face the risk of displacement as neighborhoods change or continue in a troubling direction.” Recently, there has been an increase in BIPOC relocation from the city of Chicago due to increases in rent and property taxes from rising property values and the inability to earn a decent wage to keep up with the cost-of-living increases. The result has only assisted in aiding in segregated and impoverished communities while slowly effacing the cultural diversity of the city.

It is in these times that we must look to Dr. King’s legacy to regain our sense of compassion, humanity, equity, and duty. Economic justice cannot be achieved without addressing the systems of racism and classism that contribute to impoverished communities. Answering the calling, leaders Rev. Dr. William Barber II, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Shailly Gupta Barnes, and Roz Pelles, are breathing new life into Dr. King’s dream of economic justice through the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The modern movement of the Poor People’s Campaign strives to unite the people to “confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism” with the understanding that there is a crucial need to “shift the moral narrative, impact policies and elections at every level of government, and build lasting power for poor and impacted people”(Taken from the Poor Peoples Campaign: About section). As we incorporate Dr. King’s teachings into our own life’s work, lets continue to collectively work towards actualizing his deferred dreams in his unfortunate absence. Happy belated birthday Dr. King. You may be gone, but never forgotten.

Resources and Recommended Readings:

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