What Did Dr. King Say About Economic Justice?

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
January 17, 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday

Most of us are acquainted with Dr. King as a civil rights leader. We are aware of his leadership with the Montgomery Bus Boycott which began in early December 1955 and came to is successful conclusion in late December 1956. We are aware of his leadership in creating the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was formed on January 10, 1957. We are aware of his enduring essays such as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” which was written on April 16, 1963. We are aware of his leadership with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on August 28, 1963, and which was the occasion for his “I Have a Dream” speech. We are aware of his leadership with the Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, which took place over several days in March 1965, and which resulted in passage of the federal Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. Throughout these events, Dr. King earned a reputation for focusing attention on the injustice and brutality of racial segregation in the South.

After 1965, however, Dr. King’s focus shifted, and many of us are less well acquainted with the evolution of his social justice activism. One turning point was an address entitled “A Time to Break Silence.” Delivered on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, this address was the most comprehensive and most passionate expression of Dr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. In turning his attention to issues of war and peace, he did not abandon his commitment to civil rights. Thus, at one point in this address, he said: “So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as the kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize they would never live together on the same block in Detroit.” Nevertheless, in this address, he clearly stepped out of the civil rights arena into a larger struggle.

Dr. King also turned his attention to economic justice after 1965. To be sure, he had not ignored economic justice in previous years. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, he pointed out that one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” After 1965, however, Dr. King placed moved economic justice toward the center of his concern. I cannot share with you this morning a scholar’s expertise regarding Dr. King’s views on economic justice. But I can share with you some of his statements, which are both deeply inspirational and deeply challenging.

In that 1967 address entitled “A Time to Break Silence,” Dr. King spoke about an American official who in 1957 had observed that the United States seemed to be “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” Dr. King then quoted President Kennedy, who said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Dr. King continued with these words: “Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken – the role of those who make peaceful revolutions impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.” Dr. King then offered this challenge: “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” Dr. King continued with words that we heard in our reading a few moments ago: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” And he concluded: “A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. . . . A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Kinda makes ya wonder what Dr. King would say about some of the folks who are seeking the office of President of the United States nowadays.

In his 1967 address “Where Do We Go from Here?” Dr. King offered this observation about racial disparities: “Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one-half those of whites. Of the bad things in life, he has twice those of whites. Thus half of all Negroes live in substandard housing. And Negroes have half the income of whites. When we view the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share. There are twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant mortality among Negroes is double that of whites and there are twice as many Negroes dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population. In other spheres, the figures are equally alarming. In elementary schools, Negroes lag one to three years behind whites, and their segregated schools receive substantially less money than per student than the white schools. One-twentieth as many Negroes as whites attend college. Of employed Negroes, seventy-five percent hold menial jobs.”

Later in this address, Dr. King called for a guaranteed annual income for everyone, protesting that “if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to find an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.” Dr. King also said the following: “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 questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.” Dr. King offered this visionary hope: “Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.”

Dr. King delivered his final sermon, “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” on March 31, 1968, just a few days before his assassination on April 4, 1968. In this sermon, Dr. King observed that after the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans were given their freedom but they were not provided with the economic means to use their freedom. In Dr. King’s words: “[America] simply said, ‘You’re free,’ and it left [them] there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for [people of color] – through an act of Congress it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest – which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.”

Later in this sermon, Dr. King told the parable of Dives and Lazarus. Dives was a very wealthy man, while Lazarus was a very poor man who was also sick. Each day, Lazarus waited for crumbs from the table of Dives, who did nothing to help. Eventually, Dives arrived in hell, putting a permanent gulf between him and Lazarus. Dr. King observed: “Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother. . . . And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world – and nothing’s wrong with that – this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. . . . There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

Again, kinda makes ya wonder what Dr. King would say about some of the folks who are seeking the office of President of the United States nowadays.

Dr. King delivered his final speech, “I See the Promised Land,” on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He had come to Memphis to work for economic justice – specifically, to support the sanitation workers in their strike for better wages. In that speech, as you heard in our reading a few moments ago, Dr. King spoke about the parable of the Good Samaritan. He concluded by saying the question posed by the parable is not, “If I help this person in need, what will happen to me?” Instead, the question posed by the parable is, “If I do not help this person in need, what will happen to that person?”

We do not fully understand Dr. King if we remember him only as a civil rights leader. He was also a fierce advocate of international peace and a fierce advocate of economic justice. If his advocacy regarding economic justice seems too visionary for our time, perhaps that is a comment on the social forces that have shaped our society and our sense of what is appropriate and just. In any case, although this may be an accident of history, I remain impressed by the observation that Dr. King was not assassinated throughout his many years of civil rights advocacy, but on the other hand, he was assassinated not long after he became outspoken regarding economic justice.

Today, my younger daughter Meredith is celebrating her eighteenth birthday. On this occasion, I am thinking back to an observation Cindy and I shared when our daughters were born. Our daughters have had the good fortune to be born into a stable and comfortable home. Not all children have that good fortune. In fact, no child has any idea about the circumstances into which they are born, or any control over the circumstances into which they are born. Through no virtue of their own, some children are born into homes and families with more than adequate financial resources. And through no fault of their own, other children are born into homes and families with very limited or inadequate financial resources. They are profoundly vulnerable and profoundly trusting. “Here I come!” they say. “Please care for me!” They trust the world into which they are born. For many children, the world shows that it deserves to be trusted. For other children, however, that trust seems misplaced. What makes any child deserve the experience of neglect or abuse? What makes any child deserve the experience of racism or poverty? Why should one child who is randomly born into a wealthy school district have so many more educational resources and advantages than another child who is randomly born into a poor school district? Mother Nature simply pushes the babies out into the world with little thought of justice or fairness. Not knowing whether they are destined for privilege or disadvantage, not knowing whether they will arrive into comfort or poverty, not even knowing whether they will be cared for or not, the babies cooperate with Mother Nature and, in being born, trustingly take their chances. As a society, it is our job to provide a social environment that is equally deserving of the trust of every child. As a society, it is our job to provide a social structure that does not practice economic Calvinism, that is, a social structure that does not arbitrarily designate some children for predestined economic paradise and other children to predestined economic misery. As a society, it is our job to pick up where Mother Nature leaves off, creating justice in response to trust.

Although our society has moved forward in many ways since the 1960s when Dr. King was leading the civil rights movement, the journey is far from complete. This past week, for example, the 2016 Pittsburgh Regional Diversity Survey was released. Here are just a couple of the key findings. Although these are diversity indicators rather than economic indicators, they nevertheless speak to enduring racial challenges in our society.

75 percent of white residents say they feel very welcome in southwestern Pennsylvania, compared to 36 percent of minorities.

79 percent of whites feel the region embraces racial and ethnic minorities. But only 41 percent of minorities feel southwestern Pennsylvania is a place that embraces them.

I would like to think that here at First Unitarian Church, we can be one small part of a justice-making process for Pittsburgh and beyond. What can we do? We can continue to pursue our own internal and external efforts to become a more multicultural and multiracial congregation. We can continue to educate ourselves about structural racism, authentic diversity, and economic justice. We can continue to be involved with the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, or PIIN, which has now brought all of its work under the overarching goal of eliminating structural racism and poverty. We can have conversations with one another, and through those conversations, we may generate visions and plans that are more worthwhile than the ideas any one of us might have individually.

And perhaps we might consider installing a Black Lives Matter banner somewhere on our building. I believe there is a solid consensus within our church that the time has come to remove our Civil Marriage is a Civil Right Banner. We have hesitated to do so in part because we are not sure what to put on our bell tower instead. We have also hesitated to do so because we are not sure what our process might be to make that decision. But surely a Black Lives Matter banner would be a worthy candidate for display on our bell tower.

Unitarian Universalist minister Toni Vincent has said: “Great Spirit of light and of darkness, we gather once again to remember a fallen friend, and nourish ourselves from the fountain of reflections. Open our hearts to the anguish of our pain, to the tired taste of swallowed tears, and to our unrealized vision. . . . Justice makes tireless demands, and we grow weary. As we touch one another in common cause, and with the Great Spirit in our midst, let us find the way and the courage to realize the dream which still lives within us.”

Here at First Unitarian Church, may we, too, find the way and the courage to realize our dreams of justice and compassion and community and reconciliation and understanding and hospitality.

© 2016 by David Herndon


Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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