Skip to content

The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of white society: Seeing the world through the eyes of Dr. King – Part II

January 18, 2016

Last week we posted the first in a three-part series in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The three-part series is modeled after a statement that Dr. King made in his Beyond Vietnam speech, where he identified the Evil Triplets – militarism, capitalism and racism. In Part I we looked at Dr. King’s message around militarism. Today’s posting looks at the economic system of capitalism. MLK1-cc_Celestine_Chua

One day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.

(Final speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1967)

The evolution of Dr. King is vital for our understanding of the man who was often referred to as the conscience of the Black Freedom Struggle. Dr. King went from fighting for de-segregation and civil rights to fighting larger systems of oppression, particularly ones that he would refer to as the Evil Triplets – militarism, racism and capitalism.

His questioning of the economic system had begun early on, but it wasn’t until he moved his focus from the south to the north. King had moved to Chicago in 1965 and began organizing around campaigns that made clear to him the intersection of race and class.MLK2-cc_notfreelance-300x200

In 1966, Dr. King, along with numerous organizations began a campaign in Chicago to challenge poverty, particularly poverty in the form of housing. King often referred to communities were Blacks lived as slums and he began to organize tenants to fight for rights, particularly through various forms of direct action. One such action was the closing down of the Dan Ryan expressway, where hundreds of people took over the highway and shut down parts of the city in order to make a statement against the violence of slums.

Here is one reflection that King had on slums:

The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of white society; Negroes live in them, but they do not make them, any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say it boldly, that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and were compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.” (The Triumph of Conscience)

Dr. King despised poverty, slums and the economic system that created such conditions. King recognized that poverty and slums for black people meant increased wealth for white people. King knew that modern day capitalism, more aptly called neoliberal capitalism, is like a virus that spreads, and like a virus it must cause harm in order to grow. Not everyone can prosper and neoliberal capitalism thrives when one small sector of society benefits at the expense of the majority. King acknowledges this dynamic in an observation he made in 1967, when he says:

We are now making demands that will cost the nation something. You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with the captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.”

Maybe a more recent example of what Dr. King is referring to can help us understand how an economic system benefits one sector of society at the expense of others. Just yesterday on MLive, there appeared for a brief period of time (since the postings are always changing) two stories that appeared at the top of the news section that illustrates the contradiction of neoliberal capitalism.

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 10.11.52 AM

You can see from the screen shot here that there were two stories, one about the increase in hotel profits in Grand Rapids, juxtaposed with an article about the racist practices of Mercantile Bank

The story on the hotel profits is in line with the ongoing narrative in Grand Rapids that there is lots of growth and that city has become a destination for the creative class and tourists. After all, how does one explain a $20 million increase in hotel sales in Grand Rapids as anything other than things are wonderful?

However, at the same time, there is this article about the racist practices of Mercantile Bank, based on newly released e-mails that demonstrate the contempt the bank has for Black business owners. Some may read this article as a critique of racism, not neoliberal capitalism. The reality is that race and class often intersect and in this case the predatory neoliberal practice of the bank had negative economic consequences for members of the black community.

The larger narrative that the economy is doing so well in Grand Rapids should always beg the question, “doing so well for whom?” A recent report on poverty statistics shows that 26.7% of the population is experiencing poverty according to the 2014 data, which is up from 21.9% from 2009. These numbers refer to the overall population that is experiencing poverty, but when one looks at the numbers for black and brown communities, the percentage of those living in poverty is over 30%. Again, the benefit of some is the cause of suffering for others.J20_KoIoT50C

King was so convinced of the brutally immoral nature of neoliberal capitalism that he spent the last few years of his life engaged in work that focused on supporting working class and poor people. One can read about King’s growing connection to organized labor in the US, in the beautifully documented book, All Labor Has Dignity. Indeed, it was King’s support of the striking city sanitation workers that brought him to Memphis in April of 1968.

More importantly, beginning in 1967, Dr. King had begun organizing what he and others around the country referred to as the Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign was calling for a mass action of people to come to Washington, DC to march and then to set up shanty towns (known as Resurrection City) to demand that the government pass what King called an Economic Bill of Rights.

King was assassinated weeks before the action in Washington, so it is hard to know exactly what the outcome of the campaign would have been had King not been murdered, but we have a pretty clear message from King about this Economic Bill of Rights.


In his essay, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King calls for a massive redistribution of wealth, akin to reparations, that he felt was owed to the black community for several centuries of exploitation.

“No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. Such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest. I am proposing, there- fore, that just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: