In an article for Look magazine published after his assassination, King wrote that the government was prepared to play Russian roulette with racial riots each summer, because it was doing nothing to correct their basic causes. He declares that “unemployment, intolerable housing and discrimination remain a scourge in Negro ghettos.”
He states that his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “cannot condone either riots or the equivalent evil of passivity” (my emphasis). He then goes on to explain the purpose of the Poor People’s Campaign, a series of demonstrations planned for that spring and summer by a broad coalition of groups.
Our idea is to dramatize the whole economic problem of the poor. . . We call our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income because we feel that the economic question is the most crucial that black people and poor people generally are confronting. There is a literal depression in the Negro community. When you have mass unemployment in the Negro community, it’s called a social problem; when you have mass unemployment in the white community, it’s called a depression. The fact is, there is a major depression in the Negro community. The unemployment rate is extremely high, and among Negro youth, it goes up as high as forty percent in some cities.
We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work. Some people are too young, some are too old, some are physically disabled, and yet in order to live, they need income . . . It would mean creating public-service jobs, and that could be done in a few weeks. A program that would really deal with jobs could minimize ---I don’t say stop---the number of riots that could take place this summer. Our whole campaign, therefore, will center on the job question, with other demands, like housing, that are closely tied to it. Much more building of housing for low-income people should be done. . .
On the educational front, the ghetto schools are in bad shape in terms of quality . . . They need more and special attention, the best quality education that can be given.
These problems, of course, are overshadowed by the Vietnam War. We’ll focus on the domestic problems, but it’s inevitable that we’ve got to bring out the question of the tragic mix-up in priorities. We are spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development.
I think we have come to a point now where there is no longer a choice between nonviolence and riots... The discontent is so deep, the anger so ingrained, the despair, the restlessness so wide, that something has to be brought into being to serve as a channel through which these deep emotional feelings, these deep angry feelings, can be funneled… into a constructive and creative channel.
There is an Old Testament prophecy about the “sins of the father being visited upon the third and fourth generations.” Nothing could be more applicable to our situation. America is reaping the harvest of hate and shame planted through generations of educational denial, political disenfranchisement and economic exploitation of its black population.”
Reading the above, how can one fail to see the parallels today? Over 40 years later, with life in our inner cities perhaps even worse than in King’s day, one wonders how this pent-up frustration and rage has not erupted more often and more intensely. But the protests in Ferguson and elsewhere over police violence and lack of accountability, along with the understanding that these events are merely symptoms of a much larger system of structural and institutional racism, economic exploitation and lack of compassion for the poor, have shown the anger and impatience that lie just under the surface in the black community.
Compared to its strong clear voice on abortion, immigrant rights, the death penalty and other issues, the Catholic Church has been pretty quiet on these protests. In fact, pretty much the entire focus has been on the need for the protests to remain “non-violent.” But on the violence of racism itself, we don’t hear as much. Not since 1979 have the US Bishops issued a major statement on race relations.
Is it not time for Catholic leaders to decide which side of this debate they are on? It is a decision church leaders had to make in King’s day, and most decided they could not support him. They said it was not the right time, and called him too radical in his methods. He responded in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Can we see parallels here today, too?
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?
The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
The small train that brought me had only two cars, one for whites and one for people of color. The Constitution proclaims equality, but customs dictate otherwise. The car for blacks was disgusting; half the seats were torn, the horsehair was falling out of the cushions. America needs to raise the public self-esteem of the Negroes if they want them to become free citizens.
How will today’s Catholic Church be presented as responding to current events in the history books of tomorrow? We need to hear Dr. King’s full message and ask whether we have been “too bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world.”
(For more on Ferguson and racial justice, click here.)