MLK and the Fierce Urgency of Economic Justice in Charlotte

The Keith Scott shooting casts everything in a different light
Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP
The Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in Charlotte on Monday.

Charlotte’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations had a different flavor Monday than they had in previous years, an atmosphere that seemed at least semi-woke. The Rev. Rodney Sadler and other clergy from Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice talked about addressing racial issues and tensions, and they weren’t the only ones.

“We need Martin Luther King more than ever,” the Rev. James Howell, pastor at Myers Park United Methodist, told the Observer. “One of the things that he did was that he kept issues before the public. He wouldn’t let them slide away.” You can hardly imagine a better occasion than this MLK Day for Charlotteans to embrace the fierce urgency of now.

The Keith Scott shooting in September and its disruptive, at times violent aftermath lit a fire under these discussions, which continue. It’s too early to tell whether they’ll succeed in easing the friction among races here. But as they, and we, grapple with issues of race in the context of King’s memory, it’s important to remember an aspect of his legacy that too often goes unaddressed.

King saw clearly that issues of racial and economic injustice are inseparable. Toward the end of his life, he worked and spoke ever more forcefully about the latter. “What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social,” he said in his “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech in Atlanta in August 1967, eight months before his assassination:

And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis … that combines the truths of both. 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. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

King’s memory is, at least superficially, venerated in all segments of American society nowadays: white, black, rich, poor. That helps obscure how contentious the federal holiday’s designation was 30 years ago. It also serves to diminish King to the level of bumper-sticker saint, a depository of gauzy inspiration custom-made for your Facebook timeline and nothing more. Stripped of historical and cultural context, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” becomes a toothless abstraction that can mean anything and serve anyone’s ends.

The protests and riots that followed the Scott shooting in Charlotte four months ago cast fresh light on the gap between rich and poor, have and have-not, in the glistening Queen CIty. This magazine devoted an entire issue a year ago to Charlotte’s lack of upward mobility. In one way or another, that problem overshadows most of the individual issues we’ll be talking about this year in the #discussCLT series. The national poverty rate is 13.5 percent. In Charlotte, it’s 16.8 percent.

So, in that spirit, take a gander at these King quotes—they’re long, I know—and ask yourselves: Are things any better in Charlotte, or in America, 50 years later? And what can we do about it?

There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it … Today, therefore, the question on the agenda must read: Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life? Even deserts can be irrigated and topsoil can be replaced. We cannot complain of a lack of land, for there are twenty-five million square miles of tillable land, of which we are using less than seven million. We have amazing knowledge of vitamins, nutrition, the chemistry of food, and the versatility of atoms. There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed—not only its symptoms but its basic causes. This, too, will be a fierce struggle, but we must not be afraid to pursue the remedy no matter how formidable the task.

The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for “the least of these.”Nobel Lecture, Oslo, Norway, December 11, 1964

Now we must develop progress, or rather, a program—and I can’t stay on this long—that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. Now, early in the century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. And in the thinking of that day, the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber. We’ve come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold: We must create full employment, or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.—“Where Do We Go From Here?,” Atlanta, August 16, 1967

And I was about to say that to free, to have freed the negro from slavery without doing anything to get him started in life on a sound economic footing, it was almost like freeing a man who had been in prison many years and you had discovered that he was unjustly convicted of, that he was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted and you go up to him and say now you’re free, but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town or you don’t give him any money to buy some clothes to put on his back or to get started in life again. Every code of jurisprudence would rise up against it. This is the very thing that happened to the black man in America. And then when we look at it even deeper than this, it becomes more ironic. We’re reaping the harvest of this failure today. While America refused to do anything for the black man at that point, during that very period, the nation, through an act of Congress, 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. Not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges for them to learn how to farm. Not only that it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming and went beyond this and came to the point of providing low interest rates for these persons so that they could mechanize their farms, and today many of these persons are being paid millions of dollars a year in federal subsidies not to farm and these are so often the very people saying to the black man that he must lift himself by his own bootstraps … Senator [James] Eastland, incidentally, who says this all the time, gets a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a year, not to farm on various areas of his plantation down in Mississippi. And yet he feels that we must do everything for ourselves. Well that appears to me to be a kind of socialism for the rich and rugged, hard individualistic capitalism for the poor.—“The Other America,” Grosse Pointe, Michigan, March 14, 1968


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