Martin Luther King Jr on America at the Crossroads

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Martin Luther King, Jr

Prior to his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign (see Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Poor People’s Campaign: the little-known protest MLK was planning when he died). The protest took place, but without the presence of King it did not achieve the level of attention or reaction that it might have. But as Desmond-Harris points out, it did attract 50,000 demonstrators, and 5000–7000 stayed on in ‘Resurrection City’ — a camp on the National Mall. Hasan Kwame Jeffries makes the argument that the Poor People’s Campaign was ‘Occupy before Occupy’, with months-long demonstrations in the capital.

King was ahead of his time in so many ways. Here’s an excerpt of an interview about the Campaign in which King spoke of the context for the Campaign:

America is at a crossroads of history, and it is critically important for us as a nation and a society to choose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage … In this age of technological wizardry and political immorality, the poor are demanding that the basic needs of people be met as the first priority of our domestic program.

We are still at that crossroads, still waiting for our leaders to find that new path.

The Campaign was founded to promote an Economic and Social Bill of Rights, which the Southern Christian Leadership Council promulgated.

  1. The right of every employable citizen to a decent job.
  2. The right of every citizen to a minimum income.
  3. The right of a decent home and the free choice of neighborhood.
  4. The right to an adequate education.
  5. The right to participate in the decision making process.
  6. The right to the full benefits of modern science in health care.

The authors wrote,

Without these rights, neither the black or the 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 towards redeeming the American dream.

Perhaps we’ll get there by the three hundredth anniversary, but only if we get started now.

I wrote about a ‘Human Spring’ in a Backchannel piece called Imagining a Corporation in 2050. I spun three scenarios for the future, Humania, Collapseland, and Neofuedalistan:

Humania is the most egalitarian and democratic scenario. [The other two are variants on horrible.]

After mounting concern about inequality, the climate, and the inroads that AI and robots were having on society, in the 2020s Western nations — and later other developing countries — were hit by a ‘Human Spring.’ New populist movements rose up and rejected the status quo, and demanded fundamental change. At first the demands were uneven — some groups emphasized climate, or inequality, or the right to work.

But by the mid 2030s, all three forces were more-or-less equal planks in the Humania platform. This led to mandated barriers to inequality — such as limits on the multiple of the salaries of highest to lowest paid workers, and progressive taxation so that the well-off paid much higher taxes by percentage. Additionally, there were worldwide actions to limit oil and coal use, and a dramatic shift to solar in the early 2020s. Concerned that people would be pushed inexorably out of the job market, governments built limits on AI use into international trade agreements, based on a notion of the human right to work.

The Humania platform would surely incorporate the points in the Economic and Social Bill of Rights, as a jumping off point. As Paul Mason has said, in Postcapitalism:

If we can’t create a sustainable global order and restore economic dynamism, the decades after 2050 will be chaos. So I want to propose an alternative: first, we save globalization by ditching neoliberalism; then we save the planet — and rescue ourselves from turmoil and inequality — by moving beyond capitalism itself.

Which is surely what Martin Luther King, Jr was working toward.

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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