Martin Luther King and Economic Justice, 1966

Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization of the Committee on Government Operations, United States Senate, Eighty-Ninth Congress, Second Session, December 14 and 15, 1966, Part 14. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1967. 2967-2982.




Washington, D.C.

      Dr. KING. Thank you very kindly, Senator Ribicoff. Let me say how very delighted I am to be here, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to testify on some of the vital issues facing our Nation today.

      I come before you in a dual role, for the serious problems before your subcommittee affect me in two ways. As an American citizen, I share the concern for restoring health to our cities and urban areas--they are becoming the dominant face of our Nation.

      But as an American Negro, I am specifically and passionately concerned with the racial ghettos of our cities--for the ghetto exists at the very core of, and is both a part and a cause of our cities' sickness.


      The new era of abundance finds us not only with proliferating ghettos, but it finds us enmeshed in confused commitments and distorted values. Our confusion can be illustrated by an unanswered question. Are we more concerned with the size, power, and wealth of our society, or with creating a more just society? The failure to pursue justice is not only a moral default. Without it, social tensions will grow and the recurring turbulence in the streets will persist despite disapproval or repressive action. Even more, a withered sense of justice in an expanding society leads to corruption of the lives of all Americans. All too many of those who live in affluent America ignore those who exist in poor America. In doing so, the affluent Americans will eventually have to face themselves with the question that Eichmann chose to ignore: How responsible am I for the well-being of my fellows? To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.


      Is there evil in America today? Not in the sense of the systematic physical extermination of a people but in the sense of the destruction of hope, after the raising of expectations, the forced separation of the poor, whether black or white, from the rest of society, the confinement to poverty and squalor of millions of Americans. To be born a Negro in an American city, for most of us, means to be "under" the main stratum of our society--to be underemployed, or unemployed, or underpaid; to be undereducated and ill housed; to face illness and perhaps death, undercared for; to face a life of little hope, entrapped by both color and need.

      American cities are not the City of God nor the City of Man. They contain the residues of exploitation, of waste, of neglect, of indifference. The poor and the discriminated huddle in the big cities--the poor-houses of the welfare state--while affluent America displays its new gadgets in the crisp homes of suburbia. . . .

      The rising affluence of America has benefited the better-off more than the poor and discriminated. Our income record is acceptable only if we wish to tolerate a society in which the richest fifth of the population is 10 times as rich as the poorest fifth, and in which the average Negro earns half as much as his white counterpart. . . .


      The sorry record of income, public service, education, indicates that we are not doing enough. A major reason for our failures is that we aim too low. Our goal is not to bring the discriminated up to a limited, particular level, but to reduce the gap between them and the rest of American society. As standards of life rise for affluent Americans, we cannot peg the poor at the old levels of "subsistence.". . .

      We need a rebalancing of our national priorities. . . .

      It is a question of the allocation of money, which means the establishing of priorities.

      Instead of joyfully committing ourselves to the war on poverty, a grudging parsimonious allocation of resources is measured out as if we feared to overkill. In contrast, the exploration of space engages not only our enthusiasm but our patriotism. Developing it as a global race, we have intensified its inherent drama and brought its adventure into every living room, nursery, shop and office. No such fervor nor exhilaration attends the war on poverty. There is impatience with its problems, indifference toward its progress, and pronounced hostility toward its errors. Without denying the value of scientific endeavor, there is a striking absurdity in committing billions to reach the moon where no people live, and from which none presently can benefit, while the densely populated slums are allocated miniscule appropriations. With the continuation of these strange values in a few years we can be assured that we will set a man on the moon and with an adequate telescope he will be able to see the slum on earth with their intensified congestion, decay, and turbulence. On what scale of values is this a program of progress?


      In still another area the expenditure of resources knows no restraints--here, our abundance is fully recognized and enthusiastically squandered. This is the waste of war. While the antipoverty program is cautiously initiated, zealously supervised, and evaluated for immediate results, billions are liberally expended for ill-considered warfare. The recently revealed misestimate of the war budget amounts to $10 billion for a single year. The error alone is more than five times the amount committed to antipoverty programs.

      The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures, we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Vietnam explode at home--they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.

      Beyond the advantage of diverting huge resources for constructive social goals, ending the war would give impetus to significant disarmament agreements. With the resources accruing from termination of the war, arms race, and excessive space races, the elimination of all poverty could become an immediate national reality. At present the war on poverty is not even a battle, it is scarcely a skirmish. . . .


      Our past thinking has proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils: Lack of education restricting job opportunities; poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative; fragile family relationships which distorted personality development. The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked, one by one. Hence, a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination, these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty. While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage--the programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at similar rates of development. Housing measures fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal. . . .

At no time has a total coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived, and as a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach the needs of the poor.


      I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most revolutionary--the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now rather widely discussed measure--the guaranteed annual income.

      Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with thunderous ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility.

      At that time, poverty was considered the measure of the individual's abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

      We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we rather widely acknowledge 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 from our conscience today by branding them as despised and incompetent. We now also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.


      We have come to the point where we must make the nonproducer a consumer or we will find ourselves drowning in a sea of consumer goods. We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution. . . .


      As important as it is to improve the economic plight of the city dweller, we must not ignore that the struggle for equality is also a moral and political act. The aim is not only to improve the economic situation of the poor, but to provide the conditions for dignity and the exercise of rights. Economic improvement despite its importance, without full citizenship rights can be a bribe to the excluded rather than a gateway to the free society.

      To be poor and Negro in America is to be powerless--in some places prevented from voting; or equally empty, having a choice of candidates who care little for the discriminated; and in most places, to be governed by police, housing authorities, welfare departments, without rights and redress.

      The anger in the streets results from the discriminated's powerlessness at city hall, and a sense that those with power are passive and uncaring. . . .


      Senator RIBICOFF. Do I sense from your statement, Dr. King, your feeling that the civil rights movement has entered a different stage? Your beginning stage on basic constitutional guarantees for everyone is now to be channeled to a recognition that the problems you must seek are basically economic and social?

      DR. KING. Yes, that is correct, Senator Ribicoff. I think that it is necessary to see at this point that the issues which we confront are the hard-core economic issues. For about a decade we worked on public accommodations and the right to vote, and as I said earlier it was necessary to do this in order to remove a stigma, in order to remove the humiliation of a caste system.

      But now we are moving into an area where we must demand basic reforms that will deal with these basic economic issues, the whole problem of housing and education, and I think we have got to see that this is much harder.

      It was easier to integrate public facilities, it was easier to gain the right to vote, because it didn't cost the Nation anything, and the fact is that we are dealing with issues now that will call for something of a restructuring of the architecture of American society. It is going to cost the Nation something.


      We can't talk about the economic problem that the Negro confronts without talking about billions of dollars. We can't end slums in the final analysis without seeing the necessity to take profit out of slums. We can't deal with the school situation in the final analysis without seeing that we are not only talking about integrated education, but we are talking about quality education, which means that millions of dollars, additional dollars, will have to be spent to improve the whole educational system of America. More money will have to be spent per pupil in all of our public schools.

      So we are now dealing with issues in the civil rights movement that are more than civil rights issues. They are human rights issues. And they are issues that are difficult because they are not always clearly stated in the Constitution. The Constitution guarantees the right to vote, but it does not necessarily state that a man has the right to live in a decent house, that a man has the right to have an adequate income. We are dealing with issues now that are not spelled out as clearly in the Constitution as the denial of the right to vote or as the denial of access to public accommodations.

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