From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice


Martin Luther King, Jr., is widely celebrated as an American civil rights hero. Yet King's nonviolent opposition to racism, militarism, and economic injustice had deeper roots and more radical implications than is commonly appreciated, Thomas F. Jackson argues in this searching reinterpretation of King's public ministry. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, King was influenced by and in turn reshaped the political cultures of the black freedom movement and democratic left. His vision of unfettered human rights drew on the diverse tenets of the African American social gospel, socialism, left-New Deal liberalism, Gandhian philosophy, and Popular Front internationalism.

King's early leadership reached beyond southern desegregation and voting rights. As the freedom movement of the 1950s and early 1960s confronted poverty and economic reprisals, King championed trade union rights, equal job opportunities, metropolitan integration, and full employment. When the civil rights and antipoverty policies of the Johnson administration failed to deliver on the movement's goals of economic freedom for all, King demanded that the federal government guarantee jobs, income, and local power for poor people. When the Vietnam war stalled domestic liberalism, King called on the nation to abandon imperialism and become a global force for multiracial democracy and economic justice.

Drawing widely on published and unpublished archival sources, Jackson explains the contexts and meanings of King's increasingly open call for "a radical redistribution of political and economic power" in American cities, the nation, and the world. The mid-1960s ghetto uprisings were in fact revolts against unemployment, powerlessness, police violence, and institutionalized racism, King argued. His final dream, a Poor People's March on Washington, aimed to mobilize Americans across racial and class lines to reverse a national cycle of urban conflict, political backlash, and policy retrenchment. King's vision of economic democracy and international human rights remains a powerful inspiration for those committed to ending racism and poverty in our time.


Over the course of his public ministry, between the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956 and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., wove together African American dreams of freedom with global dreams of political and economic equality. King opposed racism, imperialism, poverty, and political disfranchisement in increasingly radical terms. Often he referred to the American civil rights movement as simply one expression of an international human rights revolution that demanded economic rights to work, income, housing, and security. For most Americans, however, King’s freedom dreams have become a sound bite recorded in August 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, when he envisioned a world where all men sit down together at the table of brotherhood and children are judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” King overshadows the mass movement that made him famous, his sharp, dissident critique compressed into simple messages of nonviolence and American democracy celebrated as an accomplished fact rather than thwarted as a deferred dream.

Few Americans recall the discordant notes with which King began his legendary speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One hundred years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Negroes still wore shackles of segregation, discrimination, and impoverishment. They existed “on a lonely island of poverty,” banished to “the corners of American society.” The nation’s founders had issued a “promissory note” guaranteeing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all Americans. But the check bounced when black Americans tried to collect. “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation,” King’s voice boomed from his electronic pulpit. Negroes were demanding “the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” The March on Washington pushed to the foreground economic needs and demands that reflected the movement’s broadening social base and ongoing northern struggles for jobs and justice. Dreams of economic justice had long been central to the black freedom struggle and to King’s social gospel vision. Though activists could speak of winning civil, political, and economic rights in sequence, many also considered these human rights as mutually reinforcing and international in scope.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.