This is a particularly poignant Martin Luther King Jr. Day, coming one day before an African American breaks through the highest single racial limitation in the U.S. King’s dream will make a leap towards reality tomorrow, and this is a good thing.
However, we should be clear that this is not the end of racism. Even the President of the United States of America has some pretty strong limits to what he (or she, someday) can do. There are a lot of really powerful economic forces working against him, and many of these are still dramatically skewed against people who don’t look caucasian. It is worth noting that Obama is as white as he is black, but that does not diminish the monumental nature of his victory.
Dr. King knew that politics was only part of the picture, and now that we’ve made a huge leap forward in that regard, we would do well to shift our attention to some of his thoughts on economic matters, as this is a key part of why the African American community continues to struggle with high rates of disease and incarceration even as their brother and sisters move in to the White House.
I recently came across a speech by Dr. King, given in Atlanta August 16, 1967 – the annual report for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ll just step aside and let the good Doctor speak for himself with a couple of excerpts. Please enjoy and reflect upon these words:
“What used to be primarily a voter registration staff is actually a multifaceted program dealing with the total life of the community, from farm cooperatives, business development, tutorials, credit unions, etcetera. Especially to be commended are those ninety-nine communities and their staffs which maintain regular mass meetings throughout the year.
I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes) There are forty million poor people here, 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 a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes) And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right) It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” (All right) These are words that must be said. (All right)
Now, don’t think you have me in a bind today. I’m not talking about communism. What I’m talking about is far beyond communism. (Yeah) My inspiration didn’t come from Karl Marx (Speak); my inspiration didn’t come from Engels; my inspiration didn’t come from Trotsky; my inspiration didn’t come from Lenin. Yes, I read Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital a long time ago (Well), and I saw that maybe Marx didn’t follow Hegel enough. (All right) He took his dialectics, but he left out his idealism and his spiritualism. And he went over to a German philosopher by the name of Feuerbach, and took his materialism and made it into a system that he called “dialectical materialism.” (Speak) I have to reject that.
What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. (Yes) Capitalism forgets that life is social. (Yes, Go ahead) And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. (Speak) [applause] It is found in a higher synthesis (Come on) that combines the truths of both. (Yes) Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. (All right) These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
Well said, Rev. King.
Dr. King was hardly the only civil rights leader who saw the value of cooperative economics. The Highlander Institute, one of the movement’s great centers of organizing and education, has long included cooperatives as part of its work.
A publication by the US Department of Agriculture, Black Farmers in America 1865-2000, outlines the ways the agricultural cooperatives were used to get around racist processors who wouldn’t take the produce of black farmers or would give them unfair prices.
Last but not least, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives continues to use this democratic business model as a way to help black farmers hold on to their land, as it has for more than 40 years. I’ll have a lot more to say about this group next week, when I have the honor of presenting to them at their education center in Alabama. I hope to learn a lot more than I teach.
As we celebrate a great and legitimate leap forward in racial progress, we must also take this opportunity to take stock of what work is still to be done. It would be tragic for us to believe that King’s dream is fully realized and miss his call for us to create a more just and equitable economy for everyone.