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Martin Luther King Jr.’s Social Democracy

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Gone was the optimism of 1963. It had been replaced by a sense of disillusionment, a sense of urgency that America was about to lose the last chance to have its soul.” This was how Jet magazine described the climax of the Poor People’s Campaign, which reached Washington, DC, in the tumultuous summer of 1968. For Jet and for many early civil-rights activists, the Poor People’s Campaign marked a frustrating epilogue to a movement that had captured the nation’s attention in the first half of the 1960s and come to a frustrating pace of change in its second half. Slowed by white backlash and political exhaustion, civil-rights leaders hoped the Poor People’s Campaign might give new energy to the radical visions of emancipation they had helped popularize, but for many in the movement’s rank and file, it felt like a desperate last cry rather than the beginning of a new phase in the struggle for racial equality.

In her new book King and the Other America, historian Sylvie Laurent helps rescue the Poor People’s Campaign from this unfair reputation and makes a compelling case that it deserves to be not only better remembered but also more closely studied and emulated by the left today.

For Laurent, the Poor People’s Campaign was the start of a new phase of radical activism and egalitarianism. While it failed to achieve the kinds of concrete reform that the earlier civil-rights movement won, it did inspire a whole generation of radicals to take a more holistic look at how discrimination in American society worked, helping them forge a powerful critique of racial and economic inequality in America. The Poor People’s Campaign, she argues, was a critical turning point and yet also a missed opportunity.

King and the Other America helps make another important argument. Situating the economic egalitarianism of the Poor People’s Campaign and Martin Luther King Jr.’s later years in a far longer history of black activism and social-democratic thinking, she helps map out the deeper intellectual and political roots of an entwined racial and economic egalitarianism that has been at the center of much of African-American politics for nearly a century. By doing so, Laurent offers us an elegant and timely history of how black intellectuals have long made a case for the intersections between class and race. Building on the work of Thomas F. Jackson, whose pioneering From Civil Rights to Human Rights redefined the history of King’s relationship to the social-democratic left in American history, Laurent helps us connect King’s vision of social democracy to a black political tradition that has always put economic inequality at its center.

To tell her story, Laurent begins not with the Poor People’s Campaign and its origins but goes back considerably farther, to the post–Civil War efforts by African Americans to achieve economic self-empowerment in the Reconstruction years. It is here, she argues, that one can find the origins of an intersectional egalitarianism and the roots of what become the Poor People’s Campaign and MLK’s social-democratic views.

During Reconstruction, various attempts at land ownership by African Americans were only the most prominent examples of black people trying to take control of their economic destiny. Frederick Douglass, for example, repeatedly pressed for the economic empowerment of recently freed black people, as well as the necessity of their uniting with poor whites across the South. Likewise, in an example often glossed over (and not mentioned by Laurent), South Carolina’s legislature also took on the project of economic redistribution. The most radical of the Southern legislatures during Reconstruction, it created a commission that redistributed land from former slave owners to anyone willing to pay taxes and interest for it over the course of several years. Open to any resident of South Carolina, the Land Commission’s offer was taken up primarily by black people, as white citizens boycotted the Radical Republican state government. Although it was ended by a Democratic regime in 1890, the Land Commission proved to be the only significant attempt by a state government to follow through on the promise of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s “Forty acres and a mule” special order in 1865.

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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !