Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs

« Reforming Health Reform? | Main | Towards a More Just Society? »

Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Dr. King's Economic Dream Deferred

Forty-two years ago, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. To those of us who were alive then, the images are etched in painful memory: One day, Dr. King is standing with colleagues, including Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel; the next, he's lying there mortally wounded, his aides pointing in the direction of the rifle shot.
Then we remember the crowds of mourners slowly moving through the streets of Atlanta on a hot sunny day, surrounding King's casket as it was carried on a mule-drawn farm wagon; and the riots that burned across the nation in the wake of his death; a stinging, misbegotten rebuke to his gospel of non-violence.

We sanctify his memory now, name streets and schools after him, made his birthday a national holiday. But in April 1968, as Dr. King walked out on that motel balcony, his reputation was under assault. The glory days of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington were behind him, his Nobel Peace Prize already in the past.

A year before, at Riverside Church in New York, he had spoken out - eloquently - against the war in Vietnam. King said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death," a position that angered President Lyndon Johnson, many of King's fellow civil rights leaders and influential newspapers. The WASHINGTON POST charged that King had, "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people."

With his popularity in decline, an exhausted, stressed and depressed Martin Luther King, Jr., turned his attention to economic injustice. He reminded the country that his March on Washington five years earlier had not been for civil rights alone but "a campaign for jobs and income, because we felt that the economic question was the most crucial that black people and poor people, generally, were confronting." Now, King was building what he called the Poor People's Campaign to confront nationwide inequalities in jobs, pay and housing.

But he had to prove that he could still be an effective leader, and so he came to Memphis, in support of a strike by that city's African-American garbage men. Eleven hundred sanitation workers had walked off the job after two had died in a tragic accident, crushed by a garbage truck's compactor. The garbage men were fed up - treated with contempt as they performed a filthy and unrewarding job, paid so badly that 40 percent of them were on welfare, called "boy" by white supervisors. Their picket signs were simple and eloquent: "I AM A MAN."

A few weeks into their strike, which had been met with opposition and violence, Dr. King arrived for meetings and addressed a rally. Ten days later, he returned to lead a march through the streets of Memphis that ended in smashed windows, gunshots and tear gas.

Upset by the violence, he came back to the city one more time to try to put things right. The night before his death, King made his famous "Mountaintop" speech, prophetically telling an audience, "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!"

The next night he was dead. Twelve days later, the strike was settled, the garbage men's union was recognized and the city of Memphis begrudgingly agreed to increase their pay, at first by a dime an hour, and later, an extra nickel.

That paltry sum would also be prophetic. All these decades later, little has changed when it comes to economic equality. If anything, the recent economic meltdown and recession have made the injustice of poverty even more profound, especially in a society where the top percentile enjoys undreamed of prosperity.

Unemployment among African-Americans is nearly double that of whites, according to the National Urban League's latest State of Black America report. Black men and women in this country make 62 cents on the dollar earned by whites. Less than half of black and Hispanic families own homes and they are three times more likely to live below the poverty line.

The non-partisan group United for a Fair Economy has issued a report that features Martin Luther King, Jr., on the cover with the title, "State of the Dream 2010: Drained." Dr. King's dream is in jeopardy, the report's authors write, "The Great Recession has pulled the plug on communities of color, draining jobs and homes at alarming rates while exacerbating persistent inequalities of wealth and income."

Nor will a recovery ameliorate the crisis. "A rising tide does not lift all boats," United for a Fair Economy's report goes on to say, "because the public policies, economic structures, and unwritten rules of racism form mountains and ridgelines, and hills and valleys that shape our economic landscape. As a result, a rising economic tide fills the rivers and reservoirs of some, while leaving others dry and parched."

This is a perilous moment. The individualist, greed-driven free-market ideology that both our major parties have pursued is at odds with what most Americans really care about. Popular support for either party has struck bottom, as more and more agree that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power, that money in politics has corrupted our system, and that working families and poor communities need and deserve help because the free market has failed to generate shared prosperity - its famous unseen hand has become a closed fist.

It is hard to overstate the consequences of choosing more of the same - the very policies that have sundered our social contract. But hear the judgment of Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow, echoing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life and martyrdom. "The vast inequalities of income weaken a society's sense of mutual concern," Arrow said. "...The sense that we are all members of the social order is vital to the meaning of civilization."


TrackBack URL for this entry:


- I remember the day Dr. King died. I wasn't angry at the beginning. It was like something very personal in my life had been touched and finished.

Lena Horne: 1917 - 2010

I think that we should pull back are troops from the war in Afganistan.

So much remains to be done by us all, we have little reason for being not involved at some level, in some way, attempting to inprove our lot.

New businesses can be started with the objective of allocating significant amounts of profits to
indvidual and civic enhancement -improvement

During recent years our work has been so focussed so that values would be shared -as divinely intended- even as the Creators also shares with us all things needed for our further growth ad maturation.

Accordingly, we've developed group games that encourage and reward cooperation and aline of foods that improve well-being and sustain health etc and are willing to further channel resources for the public good.

With millions of persons still unemployed but with small change in their pockets that could be pooled and jointly invested, the publicstill has the means to redirect the course of the workd through cooperative pursuits-workng together humanly. It's all a matter of personal choice!

I especially recall Dr king's quoting from a biblical text regarding a certain and unavoidable Judgment coming forth..." to eventually set matter straight among the nations as one of the Isaiah's had also foretold would toccur centuries before.

Their words are still powerfully ringing true
'from the mountaintops'. As foretold "Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall verflow the hiding place.

"And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then you shall be trodden down by it. From the time that it goes forth it shall take you: for morning by morning shall it pass over, by day and ny night: and it shall become a vexationon to understand the report..." ___Isaiah

It's undoubtedly among the welcomed 'mysterious ways' how this is all literally 'panning out' as foretold!

I am Executive Director of the Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network. A community organization fighting for local people who have lost hundreds of jobs, due to the downsizing and base closure. We are tireless, non paid workers who are bringing attention to the need for Environmental Health care and Economic recovery for those left out of the decision making process. My husband is a veteran and a preacher. Our renovated building was taken away, by those who did not want us to succeed in these areas. We have no legal help, live in a month-to,month rental near a contaminated 150 foot landfill. We need to tell our story, are you interested?

Dear Mr. Bill Moyers:

I just LOVE your show and believe that it is still not to late; there is still time to change your mind, to continue with your wonderful show!!! Please stay on!!!! T.V. viewers NEED you and your program!!! It is the ONLY program which offers such an honest, very balanced, heart to heart, in-depth review of social, economic, political and artistic current events!

Last night's program was magnificent in that it delved into the heart and the crux of the structural inequality that exists in our country since the founding of it!

Being born 'white' to a 1st generation American and to an immigrant parent, having traveled and lived in Europe, having attended two all black schools in the deep south, I have very often asked myself this question: is acting with prejudice as in classism, racism, sexism, etc. forever intrinsic and indelible within our human consciousness and nature or will time and evolution propel us to greater psycho-social traits, to a new and better dimension where by all societies evolve into equality, where no one group, sex, color, religion, class or people-whether majority or minority-will take out its fears, agressions, pains, ill-fortunes on another??

The plight of the African American is so complex involving psycho-social, political, economic, historical and maybe even karmaic (sort of like what one sows, one reaps)aspects. I see an America that on the one hand, spews out the capitalistic, christian, puritanical, fend for yourself culture and asks everyone to conform to it-immigrants alike- and on the other hand, this country has great tolerance and encourages individuality, uniqueness, independence, growth, types of ideals. Perhaps, many African Americans are caught between these two paradigms: they didn't choose to be here and now that they are here, perhaps psychologically there is a part of the psyche that understandably rebels the dominant culture. There is understandable rage and anger. They were sold into slavery to the Europeans by their own people from their previous homeland. To me, this would cause a natural and understandable reaction of not feeling wanted, worthwile, of being uncounted, homeless, rejected. This for sure, could go on for centuries, especially given that the Americans, for centuries have been horrid, despicable, murderers and sick in their actions from slavery, through Jim Crowe laws to our present day structural inequality! I feel if the majority ever issues a public plea, African Americans may find it easier to overcome the natural alienation that anyone would feel having gone through this perpetual ordeal. This plea should not only be in words but in actions, such as giving respect, honor, love, as in money as in programs, as in assurance that they matter, that they are extremely important and vital to this country as inhalation is vital to the continuation of life!!! It is they who have built our transportation, agriculture, construction industries, it is they who have made our country unique in culture, art, dance, music, it is they who have brought the initial diversity to our waters, it is they who have carried the weight of our wars, our economy, our bigotry, our inequality on their very backs. We, the majority, have an obligation, a debt to African Americans and it starts with showing extreme gratitude, deference, loyalty and by making economic and social policy that addresses their real needs, hopes and dreams so that we can help them rise to a mountain top where all humans belong! Americans owe our fellow African-Americans at least that!

Thank you Bill Moyers, for all your years of great work!!



Much appreciation to Bill and Michael in acknowledging the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. They eloquently link Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign to the current racial economic divide during this Great Recession. And thank you for noting United for a Fair Economy's "State of the Dream" report. (full disclosure: I've worked at UFE for 11 years.)

Economic inequality is perhaps the leading indicator of a society struggling to provide basic necessities (health, housing, education, democracy, community, etc.). And in the US, without looking at inequality through race and gender lenses, we disregard those over-represented at the lower end of the economic spectrum, and 500 years of history.

It's impossible to ignore all the evidence of the desperate situation that tens of millions of people in the US, disproportionally people of color, women and children, and immigrants face. One can blame this on some sort of deficiency of the bottom 20 percent (blaming the victim). Or one can look at who live lives of vast wealth and power, and make the rules so they can stay on top, despite nearly bringing down the whole house. Even some Tea Partyers should be able see that basic truth.

Stevenson and Alexander are selling a story that is as usual very one sided.Blacks continue to blame instead of accepting responsability for their own actions. They choose to use generalites that are frequently posted as statistics by various polls and surveys, and as we know polls can be manipulated.
I remember a well know black radio host reciting his shopping mall experience, he could feels the eyes behind his every move, and this paranoia was evidence enough that whitey was singling out blacks as shoplifters. Like most blacks he has never owned a business, or he would know that we watch everybody. To me it appears that even educated blacks are suffering with "black paranoia" and a large dose of racial hate. They are blindly working to destroy white America, and replace it with socialist equality.

I love your show ... but HAVE to comment ...

Y'all might want to have a conversation with the good folks at Amazon. Michelle Alexander's book is listed there STARTING at $100+. This is obscene and seems woefully inconsistent with the ethos of your (and her) ongoing critique of capitalist enterprise in the 21st century.

Thankfully, the book is also available on Barnes and Noble dot com for a more reasonable list price of $18 and pennies.

"Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!"

The Promised Land is not on the other side of the mountain, it is under the mountain of inequitable garbage we ourselves have made. We live in the Promised Land; we are the Promised Land, only spoiled rotten by ourselves. And as we wait for the garbage men and others like Dr. King to come and clean up our own mess, to clean up ourselves, the pile of garbage continues to grow. Today that mountain of inequity that Dr. King stood on is still there but even higher or deeper than before. It will take much more than the efforts of a few good men to clean up the terrible wrongs we have made, it will take the true strength and unity of us all, it will take the truth, the equitable true Oneness of us All, to keep the Promised Land, to keep ourselves as we are meant to be, free.

I enjoy Bill Moyer's programing and commentary, however I often ask myself, why don't they ever talk about, or comment on, or why don't they ever address other historical leaders of the poor; why don't they raise the question of "Marcus Garvey's" economic vision for the poor, or WEB Dubois's social and political vision for the future of Blacks and the disenfranchised in this country, or The Honorable Elijah Muhammad's vision for the socially neglected and culturally rejected. That's why informed AA that follow this kinds of issues don't trust any established programing (including PBS) addressing the needs of the poor in America; because the powerful pick who they want as the leaders of the poor, or who they are comfortable with as spokespersons for especially African Americans. And it is always someone that essentially plays right into the scheme and strategy of the wealthy and established in American life.

"...The sense that we are all members of the social order is vital to the meaning of civilization."

The reality of the situation is that we are born into a pre-existing situation that will determine our place in the social order. We will move up or down in that social order depending on our ability to cope with situations in which we are presented.
Civilization is a tenuous condition that is an alternative to survival of the fittest.
Human beings are despite their war like tendencies and suspicious nature prone to working together as a group to enhance their chances of survival.
We have built complex systems of social interaction that define our social nature. There are written and unwritten rules of engagement that make it possible for us to build both social and physical structures that make our lives meaningful and functional.
We have established social contracts and virtues that support our institutions and our lifestyles. Wisdom, courage, justice, equity and temperance are essential elements of our nature.
Through cooperation we can provide safe and reliable support systems. Through greed and maliciousness we can bring about our own elimination.
It is all about the will and organization to make the right things happen.
we are in the process of creating our history through our projecting to our future in our present.

How can one complain about value of their homes when there was bubble from 1980
where the value of houses were inflated beyond anything ever seen.

Bill has lost my faith in him when he interviewed former President of NY Fed and didn't ask a single question about his role.
Bill cannot hide behind MLK and Lincoln.
a millionaire cannot scream economic justice from TV studio.

What a fantastically strong report! What a time it was, what a time of sorrow, indignity, and injustice! I am white, with the maiden name of Blackmon, and I lived in San Francisco at that time. Now I am an artist who loves life and want to spread the world that our very DNA say that: We are all part of THE FAMILY OF MAN! Our DNA and our blood should unite us - especialy in these horrendous times!
I also learned something very interesting while learning to paint: White is the ABSENCE OF ALL COLOR! BLACK IS: all the colors of the world! Black is the best of all colors! It says it all!
In some societies White is the color of Death! (Japenese...maybe also Chinese culture).
It is our accomplishments that count! That has been said so many times but it is so very true.
Accomplish great things to lift up mankind and it will return to you - 10 fold!

We visited Alabama last year when Barack Obama became president to introduce our 13 year old son at the time to the walk from Selma to Montgomery. We were ASTOUNDED to learn that the "interpretive center" park rangers have to look under the cars for BOMBS when leaving work at night. Can you believe in this Still? The restaurant where slaves were sold in Selma behind the iron gate that still stands there today...doesn't even have any type of signage to make you aware of what went on behind those gates. What a disgrace.

Post a comment

THE MOYERS BLOG is our forum for viewers' comments intended for discussing and debating ideas and issues raised on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL. THE MOYERS BLOG invites you to share your thoughts. We are committed to keeping an open discussion; in order to preserve a civil, respectful dialogue, our editors reserve the right to remove or alter any comments that we find unacceptable, for any reason. For more information, please click here.

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

A Companion Blog to Bill Moyers Journal

Your Comments


THE JOURNAL offers a free podcast and vodcast of all weekly episodes. (help)

Click to subscribe in iTunes

Subscribe with another reader

Get the vodcast (help)

For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ