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‘King was a radical. We forget that.’: MLK’s forgotten fight for economic equality highlights MLK50

King was killed 50 years ago. An effort in Memphis aims to make sure his legacy isn't shrouded by gauzy nostalgia.

Dr. Martin Luther King addresses some 2,000 people in Memphis, Tennessee on the eve of his death. (Getty Images)
Dr. Martin Luther King addresses some 2,000 people in Memphis, Tennessee on the eve of his death. (Getty Images)

Wendi C. Thomas had not yet been born when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Yet the slain civil rights leader’s struggle for racial equality and fairness for poor people has inspired her life and career.

Though born in Ohio, Thomas, 46, has spent most of her life in Memphis. She moved there as child in 1980, after her parents relocated there from the small college town they called their home. She came of age and honed her editorial skills as a journalist, all the while steeped in the racial cross-currents of the city where King was murdered.

“Growing up in Memphis, you always have some kind of basic understanding of Dr. King and his history, even if it’s not framed accurately especially in the last years of his life,” Thomas told me during a recent phone interview. “I’ve always been aware of this hypocrisy between how this city pretends to celebrate King while ignoring everything he has to say about economic justice.”

In 1968, King went to Memphis at the request of local black leaders and activists as part of his “Poor People’s Campaign,” lending his support to striking sanitation workers, who were demanding better working conditions and improved pay. On the night before the planned March, King spoke to an overflow crowd at a mass meeting held at Memphis’ Bishop Charles Mason Temple, where, preaching without notes, he declared:

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. 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! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

A day later, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, James Earl Ray fired the bullet that silenced King’s prophetic voice. The sanitation strike was settled within weeks, in the aftermath of nationwide unrest.

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King’s memory and legacy survives today on a simplistic level as the uplifting ideal of nonviolence and respectable protest. Indeed, King’s birthday, celebrated as a national holiday across the United States, largely by endlessly looping his “I Have A Dream” speech and fundamentally misreading his colorblindness argument.

“King was a radical. We forget that.”

Thomas believes that this manner of nostalgic iconography only disrespects King’s life and his ambitions for the nation. She recognized that the 50th anniversary of King’s death would bring intense attention to Memphis, but feared King’s real and enduring issue — economic justice — would end up getting lost amid a hazy, palatable celebration.

So Thomas, a former columnist at the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, spent the last year developing and coordinating MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, an independent and nonprofit journalism project created to ensure that the renewed focus would be placed on the social causes that brought King to Memphis in his last days. The project, first envisioned during her 2016 fellowship at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, allowed Thomas to assemble a multicultural team of freelance writers, editors, and photographers with the King-like ambition of “disrupting the status quo.”

With the nation preparing to remember King’s assassination, and her MLK50 project heading to its planned conclusion on April 16 — the date the Memphis sanitation strike was settled — Thomas shared with me her understanding of King’s legacy, its impact on her life and how it continues to reverberate in Memphis.

What does Dr. King’s life mean to you now, half a century later?

King was a radical. We forget that. He called for a guaranteed jobs program and a guaranteed basic income. The FBI director tried to get him to commit suicide. He was a truth teller. He was a ardent supporter of the First Amendment. He actually mentions the First Amendment by name and calls out the freedom of the press and the right to assembly in the last speech he made, April 3rd, at Mason Temple here in Memphis.

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And so, I don’t deify King but because he does occupy this special place in Memphis’ memory, I think it’s a duty as a journalist, as a truth-teller to lift up what he was really about and try to answer the question he posed in the title of his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here?”

You’ve spent the most of your career in Memphis, the city where Dr. King died leading a protest for sanitation workers. What’s Memphis like today? Did Dr. King’s death change much in Memphis?

So Memphis today is the poorest large metro area in the nation … Fifty-two percent of children in the city of Memphis live below the poverty line. Black households in Shelby County, which Memphis is the anchor of, make half of white households make in Shelby County and that has remained constant since 1980 when the federal government started collecting that data …

Malcolm X said, and I’ll paraphrase, that if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, is that progress? And so, I think that is the question that Memphis needs to ask itself.

“When I speak places and people ask me what’s the goal? Well, my goal is to disrupt the status quo.”

If you are measuring progress in terms of do sanitation workers today earn so little that they qualify for welfare, as a sizable portion did in 1968, then yes, we’ve made progress. If you’re asking, if in a city that’s now 64 percent black, if there’s anything that resembles proportionate representation in C-suites, as the head of major foundations, nonprofits, and even government adminstrations, the answer is absolutely no.

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Memphis has a long way to go and I think one of the things that’s frustrating for me about this moment is this desire to celebrate. I don’t see the quantitive data that would give us cause for celebration.

To be fair, Memphis has had two elected black mayors since King was killed. Blacks make up a majority of the City Council, the County Commission. But whites are still overrepresented on those bodies in proportion to their share of the population in the city and the county.

There is a black middle class and a lot of them are in government jobs. And of course FedEx is headquartered here. International Paper is here. AutoZone is headquartered here. To the extent that they employ black people in management and leadership roles, that’s something that could not be said when Dr. King was still with us.

Turning to your current project – in the name of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – what are you hoping to achieve with a yearlong reporting and civic engagement project on economic justice?

Last April, on the 49th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, I launched MLK50 Justice for Journalism, which as you said is a yearlong, nonprofit reporting project focused on economic justice. When I speak places and people ask me what’s the goal? Well, my goal is to disrupt the status quo. That’s it, fundamentally.

More specifically, my team of editors, reporters and photographers want to steer the public conversation in Memphis and hopefully beyond to issues of economic justice. King came here to Memphis to support low-wage, underpaid workers and so to the extent that we can, we’re writing about jobs and wages. That is why King was in town. And if you’re going to mark this moment and not look critically at jobs and wages today, you’re playing around.

“It’s just hard for me to believe that King would be like, ‘Oh great. my name is on a street sign.’ I just can’t imagine from my understanding of his work that he would care about that.”

So for example, one of the stories we’re going to publish Monday is the living wage survey. We had surveyed the 25 largest employers in the Memphis metro area and collectively they employ 160,000 people … The essence of the survey is [asking the question]: Do large employers here pay their workers enough to live on?

I won’t scoop myself, but it’s really been stunning how many companies won’t answer the question and have given us all manner of excuses or are are ignoring us. I think it’s really kind of incredible to think that companies will be tweeting out some MLK quote on April 4 or throwing a few bucks at an event, claiming to honor King but don’t pay their workers enough to live on. It’s shameful. So my team is here to amplify that hypocrisy and to amplify the voices of those workers.

You recently wrote about MLK streets across America for a special race issue of National Geographic. What’s the significance of memorializing Dr. King on streets across the U.S., and frankly, the world?

I spoke at the National Museum of African American History and Culture recently about that and in my speech I said that instead of seeing these street signs as an honor to Dr. King, we need to see them as a reminder to ourselves to fulfill his dream and the mission of his last crusade, the Poor People’s Campaign. It’s just hard for me to believe that King would be like, “Oh great, my name is on a street sign.” I just can’t imagine from my understanding of his work that he would care about that.

Is there an ironic parallel to naming streets for Dr. King and the memorialization of Confederate soldiers?

And actually the confederate monuments in Memphis came down on December 20 [2017], because there was this push to get them down before April 4th. There was this understanding that we can’t say “Yay, King!” in the city where the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan’s equestrian statute stands just a couple miles from downtown.  

This is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. What do you want people to know and remember about his life?

King was a radical. He was loathed by most white people and not embraced by a lot of black people when he was killed. The kind of policy recommendations that he called for and wanted to see were disruptive. His critique of capitalism was brutal. If you don’t reckon with that you can’t claim to honor King.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.