Hello everyone, and Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend! I hope that you have plans to enjoy a great holiday with friends and family.
I remember when Dr. King’s Birthday first became a national holiday. It was 1986. I was in sixth grade. We were amazed that there would be a new holiday. We watched MLK’s I Have a Dream speech in class. It made a deep impression on that darkened classroom of 12-year-olds.
I watched the speech again in college in a U.S. History course 8 years later. It struck me as even more profound then. Martin Luther King Jr. may be the most powerful moral symbol in American history.
Here’s something you might not know: Martin Luther King Jr. began advocating for a Universal Basic Income in the final year of his life. Here’s a video of him speaking about it at Stanford in April, 1967:
And here is a direct quote from his final book:
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.
—Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)
Here is an excerpt from that book’s final chapter, most of which could be written today:
We have [come a] long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people to idleness and bind them into constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also never know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty. . . .We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution . . .
We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of [preceding] the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay . . . Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated . . .
The proposal is not a “civil rights” program, in the sense that the term is currently used. The program would benefit all the poor, including the two-thirds of them who are white. I hope that both Negro and white will act in coalition to affect this change, because their combined strength will be necessary to overcome the fierce opposition we must realistically anticipate.
Our nation’s adjustment to a new mode of thinking will be facilitated if we realize that for nearly 40 years two groups in our society have already been enjoying a guaranteed income. Indeed, it is a symptom of our confused social values that these two groups turn out to be the richest and poorest. The wealthy who own securities have always had an assured income; and their polar opposite, the relief client, has been guaranteed an income, however miniscule, through welfare benefits.
The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundant condensed into the overfed mouth of the middle and upper class until [they] gag with superfluity . . .
The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.
—Martin Luther King Jr. (1967)
He was assassinated a few months later, in April, 1968.
Our tendency today is, I believe, to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday as an example of a dream realized. He fought for racial equality, and with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended public segregation and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, America became more just and equitable. We celebrate his legacy every January as an example of the moral development of our country.
There is another interpretation though – that he was in the midst of his work and that work was cut short and left unfinished.
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. had clearly turned his attention to a guaranteed minimum income as the next major Civil Rights issue of his time. Even with MLK’s passing, a guaranteed income became a mainstream goal. Milton Friedman was for it and 1,200 economists signed a study saying it would be great for both the economy and society. A guaranteed national income even passed the House of Representatives four years later in 1971 under Richard Nixon. Unfortunately, it stalled in the Senate and the moment was lost.
Now, almost fifty years later, here we are, celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. How would he reflect on America in 2019?
What would he want us to do – honor his memory, or further his work?
Universal Basic Income helps those who have the least the most. Women whose work is often unrecognized and uncompensated would have the freedom to improve their situations and/or walk away from abusive jobs or relationships. Members of marginalized groups would have greater access to resources and paths forward.
I recently shared that a couple in Georgia, inspired by this campaign, is funding a Freedom Dividend of $12,000 for an individual or family in South Carolina later this year. They reference Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in their pledge:
People may wonder why ordinary citizens like us are willing to give up $12,000 to help virtual strangers. Our reason is simple. We are excited to be involved in a potential solution to one of our nation’s biggest problems: poverty. It puts the money back into the hands of one our nation’s biggest resources: our people, knowing that individuals, and not governments, know what is most needed to improve their life and their communities. As Christians, we strongly believe in the idea of charitable giving. As people who fiercely believe in democracy, we understand that what Martin Luther King Jr. said was true: “If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this (economic) inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.”
Let’s truly celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday the way he would want. Let’s finish his work.