A Personal Remembrance of Martin Luther King’s Pivot to Poverty

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New Orleans    Every once in a while something falls into your hands that begs to be shared. In this case S.M. “Mike” Miller, one of my infrequent, but invaluable correspondents and a faithful subscriber and sometime contributor to our journal, Social Policy, sent me, and others, a remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr, which seems timely. Including Mike’s piece, which I’ve lightly edited below, seems especially timely on the eve of the national holiday and a week before President Obama leaves office, as President-elect Trump tweets abuse at civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis.


By S. M. Miller

I was heartened by a comment by Henry Louis Gates [in a three-part PBS series on race] that Martin Luther King Jr. had moved in the last period of his young life to emphasizing economics in dealing with racial issues in the United States.

I had been trying to influence King in that direction for a couple of years. I met him at the annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Council in Natchez, Mississippi in 1965 when he was in bed, suffering from a cold. I was there as a speaker invited by his educator advisor who liked what I had written about school dropouts and pushouts. The advisor, a professor at Michigan State, had taken a leave from the university to work fulltime for King and earlier on a plane with King had begun to read the speech that he had asked me to write for Ted Kennedy for the convention but when King looked at the speech, he said, “don’t give it to Kennedy, I’ll use it.”

In the following seven years, I was an advisor and then a staff member at the Ford Foundation as well as a professor at New York University. One of my three self-appointed missions at the Foundation was to widen the Foundation’s support of black organizations beyond the National Urban League. That effort led to my spending time with King and building a successful case for broader funding.

In my discussions with King I raised the issue for not only overcoming racial barriers but to more directly improve the economic situation of African Americans by affecting the shaping of the American economy. He did not see why he should talk about national economic policies. After the second or third time I raised this issues, Martin said I still don’t understand why you want me to talk about national economic policies but since “I owe you, I’ll do it.” I replied, no, you are too busy to do something that you don’t feel strongly about.

Sometime later, I received a call at home on a Saturday morning—Martin wants to have a chapter on economics in his new book and wants you to write it. Will you? I agreed, only to learn that it was needed by Monday morning. My wife, psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, consented to take over my weekend family and household responsibilities, and I dashed off the chapter. The publisher did not want to use it. Martin insisted, and it appeared as the appendix to “Where Do We Go From Here.”

Earlier, when I was still at Syracuse University, a senior aide in Senator Rubicoff’s office called me, saying that the Senator is planning a series of hearings on urban issues. We are looking for topics and issues. Would you please look me up when you are next in Washington? We met. I was really “on” that day and reeled off 10 terrific ideas. No, no, the aide said. I asked the aide, “What’s up? You are tossing off this good stuff?” The aide said, “I’ll level with you. My senator is addicted to golf, so I have to offer something compelling to get him off the course. He is lazy so it can’t be a topic that requires him to spend time studying the issue. Third, he is vain; he wants his name in the media.” I replied that I could not meet those requirements and left.

Sometime later, Martin decided to testify before the Rubicoff hearings on urban issues and I was asked to collaborate with Stanley Levison, a chief aide to King, on preparing the testimony. I organized a meeting at my home in New York City of leading New York urban thinkers. Stanley and I wrote Martin’s presentation which dealt with racial economic issues in housing situations. Martin testified. The next day the front page of the New York Times had a front page picture of Martin and the senator. So I helped deliver for the senator.

Much more importantly, I contributed to that emerging stage of attention to economics in the King legacy. Gates’ view vindicated my pressures on King.

All I can add is that the arc of history is long and leans toward justice, and like Miller, that’s worth remembering as we gird ourselves for the future. Thanks for sharing, Mike!