The Latest Perversion of Martin Luther King Jr.? Invoking His Legacy to Defend Means-Testing.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a committed democratic socialist. If you want to honor his legacy, join the fight for universal social programs.

Eli Day January 24, 2020

Universal programs benefit everyone and advance racial justice. That’s why Dr. King fought for them. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s mem­o­ry casts a long shad­ow over the month of Jan­u­ary, and sad­ly offers oppor­tu­ni­ties for the most eager of politi­cians to tag in one of history’s great moral heavy­weights for their pet projects and causes.

Whatever centrists pleading for moderation tell themselves, they are not on the side of Dr. King or the Poor People’s Campaign.

For those who share King’s social-demo­c­ra­t­ic con­vic­tions, that makes it espe­cial­ly impor­tant to call non­sense on efforts to scram­ble his rad­i­cal lega­cy into some­thing more pop­u­lar — and benign — than it ever was dur­ing his actu­al life. With­out it, the Dis­ney­fi­ca­tion” of King will sure­ly continue. 

Take social pro­grams. In last week’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate, for­mer South Bend, Indi­ana May­or Pete Buttigieg was asked about his rejec­tion of free uni­ver­sal high­er pub­lic edu­ca­tion in favor of his more mod­est pro­gram. Buttigieg saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty to invoke Dr. King’s lega­cy, and he took it:

The Poor People’s Cam­paign is march­ing on Iowa right now, call­ing on us to talk about this issue more…We got­ta be mak­ing sure that we tar­get our tax dol­lars where they will make the biggest dif­fer­ence. And I don’t think sub­si­diz­ing the chil­dren of mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires to pay absolute­ly zero in tuition at pub­lic col­leges is the best use of those scarce tax­pay­er dollars.

What Buttigieg is imply­ing here is that means-test­ed pro­grams are more pro­gres­sive than uni­ver­sal ones, enlist­ing King’s mem­o­ry to make his point. King is sum­moned when­ev­er some­one hoists up the revived Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign—a mul­tira­cial, work­ing-class move­ment against pover­ty which King set in motion. 

It’s obvi­ous why you’d do this. King may have been wide­ly loathed in his final years, but he’s now among the most admired fig­ures in the same coun­try that did every­thing it could to make his life an unbear­able hell. Tap­ping any aspect of his mem­o­ry throws moral weight behind a politician’s arguments. 

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment is more than hap­py to take this tack amid its ongo­ing clash with its pro­gres­sive base. One of the key fault lines in that con­flict has been over com­pet­ing visions of social pol­i­cy. On one side, mod­er­ates like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg favor means-test­ed pro­grams, where ben­e­fits only flow to those who can prove they are deserv­ing enough. On the oth­er, pro­gres­sive lead­ers like Bernie Sanders, Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar insist that core aspects of a dig­ni­fied life shouldn’t be hawked on the mar­ket, but guar­an­teed to all. 

As for King and his fel­low lead­ers in the Poor People’s Cam­paign, we don’t have to won­der what they’d think. They chose a side: uni­ver­sal pro­grams all the way down. 

His­to­ry is clear on this. The egal­i­tar­i­an vision offered by King and his social­ist pals like Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Ran­dolph includ­ed blunt calls for pro­grams like uni­ver­sal­ly guar­an­teed hous­ing, income, health­care and edu­ca­tion. And today’s Poor People’s cam­paign, the one Buttigieg name-dropped, has been clear about its pri­or­i­ties. Its web­site includes a lit­er­al list of demands. Guar­an­teed annu­al incomes” and full employ­ment.” Free tuition at pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties” and sin­gle-pay­er uni­ver­sal health care.” Fair and decent hous­ing for all.”

Dis­hon­esty about these posi­tions dam­ages the integri­ty of any­one who we’re told rep­re­sents the Very Seri­ous wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. What­ev­er cen­trists plead­ing for mod­er­a­tion tell them­selves, they are not on the side of King or the Poor People’s Campaign. 

So what made King and so many oth­er pro­gres­sive icons go all in for uni­ver­sal programs? 

As his­to­ri­an Thomas F. Jack­son con­vinc­ing­ly shows in From Civ­il Rights to Human Rights: Mar­tin Luther Luther King Jr. and the Strug­gle for Eco­nom­ic Jus­tice, King’s polit­i­cal con­vic­tions were forged along­side a pil­grim­age to Chris­t­ian social­ism.” Wit­ness­ing the trag­ic pover­ty of those liv­ing around me,” King wrote of his child­hood, taught him that the insep­a­ra­ble twin of racial injus­tice was eco­nom­ic injus­tice.” He even­tu­al­ly came to call for a rad­i­cal redis­tri­b­u­tion of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pow­er” and expressed deep skep­ti­cism towards the entire cap­i­tal­is­tic econ­o­my.” Over time, King’s dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the frag­ment­ed and unequal wel­fare state” had only strength­ened his demo­c­ra­t­ic socialism.” 

That last point is impor­tant. One of the great sym­bols of that frag­ment­ed” and dys­func­tion­al sta­tus quo, past and present, is the means-test­ed pro­gram. On the sur­face, means-test­ing sounds like a sure­fire way to guar­an­tee ben­e­fits go to those who need them most. But this argu­ment col­laps­es under scruti­ny. For starters, mak­ing peo­ple prove that they’re poor enough to receive ben­e­fits in a soci­ety where the poor are already treat­ed ter­ri­bly is cru­el and humil­i­at­ing, and many peo­ple under­stand­ably decide to avoid our country’s nasty treat­ment of wel­fare recip­i­ents. Then there’s the thick maze of paper­work and bureau­cra­cy you’re forced to nav­i­gate, leav­ing behind mil­lions who pre­dictably don’t have the damn time. And because right-wingers in polit­i­cal lead­er­ship day­dream about starv­ing the poor and some­times find lib­er­als craven enough to join them, means-test­ed pro­grams are always a hair-trig­ger away from being blown to smithereens. 

Uni­ver­sal pro­grams, mean­while, suf­fer from none of this insuf­fer­able com­plex­i­ty. Just think of pub­lic libraries and parks, avail­able to all. When fund­ed through pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion, where the wealthy pay a sig­nif­i­cant­ly larg­er share of their income than the work­ing-class, these pro­grams can reduce inequal­i­ty and improve people’s lives at the same time. And because pub­lic schools, parks, libraries and qua­si-uni­ver­sal pro­grams like Social Secu­ri­ty ben­e­fit the whole of soci­ety — and are typ­i­cal­ly beloved by all — they are much hard­er to cut or oth­er­wise undermine. 

The case for uni­ver­sal pro­grams is obvi­ous. Dr. King and the Poor People’s Cam­paign saw it clear­ly: they are con­ve­nient, reli­able and durable as hell, improv­ing people’s lives while free­ing them to do more of what they love. 

Thomas F. Jack­son wrote of King’s deep­en­ing com­mit­ments to demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism” in the face of polit­i­cal mod­er­a­tion that failed to mean­ing­ful­ly address the mate­r­i­al suf­fer­ing of poor and work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. That meant there was no room for clunky, humil­i­at­ing and need­less­ly com­plex means-test­ed programs. 

King’s lega­cy, and the Poor People’s Campaign’s unfin­ished work of build­ing pop­u­lar sup­port for a more egal­i­tar­i­an soci­ety, should be broad­cast across every cor­ner of the coun­try. But it should be the actu­al record. As the writer Marc Lam­ont Hill reminds us, far from being a uni­ver­sal­ly-beloved polit­i­cal fig­ure, King was a Black rad­i­cal anti-cap­i­tal­ist, anti-impe­ri­al­ist, rev­o­lu­tion­ary Chris­t­ian who died as an ene­my of the State.”

Eli Day was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He is a writer and relent­less Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, City Met­ric, Huff­in­g­ton Post, The Root, Truthout, and Very Smart Brothas, among others.
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