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Where Was Martin Luther King Heading?

Martin Luther King

An intelligent approach to the problems of poverty and racism will cause us to see that the words of the psalmist — "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" — are still a judgment upon our use and abuse of the wealth and resources with which we have been endowed.

— "Where Do We Go From Here?," A Testament of Hope:
The essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr

Italicized passages are quotations.
All unattributed quotes are from Martin Luther King, Jr.

What do we know about King's aspirations?

Martin Luther King's approach was to inspire with a vision of justice, not to merely prescribe. He understood that "I have a dream" would unite us, but "I have a plan" would divide us. He also understood that, in a fluid struggle with combative opponents, a plan becomes a fixation for supporters and a target for opponents. A dream, on the other hand, inspires us not only to act, but to aspire, to plan, to think for ourselves, and to have faith. "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."

Yet King clearly had a strategy — of pushing against boundaries, going deeper, and taking us out of our comfort zones — politically, intellectually, and spiritually.

He was a master at staying just far enough ahead of his own movement to challenge it without losing it. He carefully deduced what we didn't realize we were ready for and took us there. Clues in his speeches and writings suggest where he was going to take us next.

Beyond Race

No sooner had Martin Luther King become famous as our leading opponent of racism than he began to address poverty among all races. He saw that the most racist whites were themselves held down by an unjust economic system — that even those who reviled him and spit on him were victims. Without leaving race behind, he tackled poverty.

Beyond Poverty's Symptoms

Treating symptoms of poverty was not enough for King; more and more, he examined causes of poverty, asking why "people in the other America find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."  He began to question, not only why those who worked hardest were poor, but why great concentrations of wealth and privilege kept all working people, and even small business owners, poorer than they ought to be. Even if he didn't "see the whole staircase," at least at first, he saw more with each step. He got many of his supporters, still smarting from abuse they had received because of their race, to look beyond their own plight and work to end poverty for all.

Beyond American Poverty

His volunteers were American; his funding was American; his network and contacts were American; even his expertise was about America; and although his fame was worldwide, it was greatest in America. Yet after seeing poverty abroad, he led us out of our comfort zone once again, asking us to address the causes of worldwide poverty.

Beyond War

His commitment to non-violence took him beyond the question of why poor black men were fighting a rich white man's war, beyond Vietnam, and even beyond warfare itself in the hope of building foundations for peace.

It is not enough to say "We must not wage war." It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace.

- Speech in Oslo On receiving the Nobel Peace Prize

Beyond Left, Right, and Middle

King frequently criticized the materialism, lack of spirituality and "the end justifies the means" mentality of the far left, while being careful to similarly criticize these same attributes as prevailing in capitalism. Over and over, he stated that, Truth is found neither in traditional capitalism nor in classical communism. Capitalism fails to realize that life is social. Communism fails to realize that life is personal. The good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism.

The key word for King was "reconciles," which is entirely different from "compromises." Reconciliation is based on truth, on going deeper, on being truly radical. Compromises have been based on retaining power, avoiding conflict, and treating symptoms. King was impatient with "moderates" who would limit the movement to charitable programs for the poor.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to the beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will say: "This is not just." It will look across the oceans, and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of those countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just."

The Guaranteed Income

There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum — and livable — income for every American family.

King increasingly pressed for a guaranteed income to every citizen.

But, if he was against charity as a substitute for justice, where was this income to come from? A strong hint appears in his quote on the cover of this brochure:

"The Earth is the Lord's and the Fullness Thereof"

If the earth is the Lord's gift to all His people, by what right do we go around the world, grabbing  it for ourselves? Why, by the "right of conquest"! By that same "right," some in our own country live off land rent they collect from others. Didn't our own system of land titles begin with conquest and political intrigue? How is it that Hispanics are mostly renting from whites in states with Spanish names? How is it that so many blacks rent from whites, not only in America, but even in Africa? Here is a problem that underlies racism, poverty, imperialism, war, and even the folly of left vs. right. For as the left so often tries to socialize what is rightly private, the right privatizes the earth itself, which is naturally social.

Reviving a Repressed Truth

The idea that the earth belongs to all of us equally, and that the rental value of land should be shared as a guaranteed income, is not new to Martin Luther King. It is a repressed truth that has been rediscovered over and over, only to be stifled, dismissed and co-opted by those who enjoyed the fruits of other people's labor. King's view resonates, not only with the Bible, but with Aristotle, the classical liberals, American revolutionaries, and even with Nobel laureates in economics. But the concept was most famously pressed by Henry George, America's first progressive economist. King began paraphrasing and quoting George, at least by 1965, and his approach became more and more "Georgist" as he delved into the question of why the great strides his civil rights movement had made were not abolishing poverty.

Without This Reform, Nothing Else Will Succeed

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils: lack of education restricting job opportunities; poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative; fragile family relationships which distorted personality development. The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty....

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past have all had another failing - they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

In this statement, King was beginning to lay out the sad realization that, when the poor earn more because they are educated, their rents go up; that when the poor have stronger families and can earn more money, their rents go up, that even when the poor organize into unions, which he passionately supported, their gains in higher wages are met with higher rents and higher purchase prices for homes -  that landlords and banks operate in tandem to rob them. Even giving the poor public housing has turned out to be a cold, half-hearted effort at best, and a house of cards when speculators wanted land occupied by housing projects.

Only a basic income, a share of the Lord's earth and the fullness thereof, would go to the root of the matter. It would not only provide an income to the poor, but would break up the monopoly that constantly drives up rents.

This is the radicalism toward which Martin Luther King was headed. It is a radicalism that has been suppressed many times, but has resurfaced in the thinking of history's greatest thinkers. It is a radicalism we must embrace to honor Martin Luther King's legacy.

What Others Have Said:

Henry George: "The Crime of Poverty" 1885

"'No taxes and a pension for everybody;' and why should it not be? To take land values for public purposes is not really to impose a tax, but to take for public purposes a value created by the community. And out of the fund which would thus accrue from the common property, we might, without degradation to anybody, provide enough to actually secure from want all who were deprived of their natural protectors or met with accident, or any man who should grow so old that he could not work. All prating that is heard from some quarters about its hurting the common people to give them what they do not work for is humbug. The truth is, that anything that injures self-respect, degrades, does harm; but if you give it as a right, as something to which every citizen is entitled to, it does not degrade. Charity schools do degrade children that are sent to them, but public schools do not.

Tom Paine: "Agrarian Justice" 1796

"Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue.... Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.... In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for....

"To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property:
And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age."

Milton Friedman: two interviews

"The proposal for a negative income tax is a proposal to help poor people by giving them money, which is what they need, rather than as now, by requiring them to come before a government official to tally all their assets and liabilities and be told that you may spend X dollars on rent, Y dollars on food, etc., and then be given a handout.... Once [the poor] get on welfare, we make it almost impossible for them to get off. In order for somebody who gets on to get off, he or she has to have a really good job, because to get off gradually, to earn a little bit, now doesn't pay...."

"Governments can collect taxes best on things that don't move. Land is an ideal basis of taxation because you can't take it away."

Abraham Lincoln: letter to law partner Gridley

"The land, the earth God gave to man for his home, sustenance and support, should never be in the possession of any man, corporation, society or unfriendly government any more than air or water -- if as much. An individual or company, or enterprise, acquiring land should hold no more than is required for their home and sustenance, and never more than they have in actual use in the prudent management of their legitimate business, and this much should not be permitted when it creates an exclusive monopoly. All that is not so used should be held for the free use of every family to make homesteads and to hold them as long as they are so occupied."

Winston Churchill:

"Some years ago in London there was a toll bar on a bridge across the Thames, and all the working people who lived on the south side of the river had to pay a daily toll of one penny for going and returning from their work. The spectacle of these poor people thus mulcted of so large a proportion of their earnings offended the public conscience, and agitation was set on foot, municipal authorities were roused, and at the cost of the taxpayers, the bridge was freed and the toll removed. All those people who used the bridge were saved sixpence a week, but within a very short time rents on the south side of the river were found to have risen about sixpence a week, or the amount of the toll which had been remitted!

"And a friend of mine was telling me the other day that, in the parish of Southwark, about 350 pounds a year was given away in doles of bread by charitable people in connection with one of the churches. As a consequence of this charity, the competition for small houses and single-room tenements is so great that rents are considerably higher in the parish! 

"All goes back to the land, and the land owner is able to absorb to himself a share of almost every public and every private benefit, however important or however pitiful those benefits may be."

Terence Powderly (Head of the Knights of Labor)

"The believer in absolute ownership must also be a believer in no ownership. He believes in absolute ownership for himself and no ownership for others....

"It is plain, then, that the use of the earth is all that man can lay claim to, and it is but equity that he should pay for the privilege of using it for his own purposes. Some do not want to use their portion, and may allow others to do so. These others should pay for that use, and pay for it in proportion as its possession benefits them, that the remainder may be recompensed for that which they surrendered to them....

"Everything erected upon the earth's surface is the result of labor, but the industry displayed does not confer ownership on the workman. The land made more valuable as the result of man's industry, escapes taxation, while he whose labor enriched it is taxed, and receives no part of the wealth his labor creates, save enough to keep body and soul in union with each other...."

Green Party Platform of 2013: Livable Income and Eco-taxes to help save the planet

"We affirm the importance of access to a livable income.

"We call for a universal basic income (sometimes called a guaranteed income, negative income tax, citizen's income, or citizen dividend). This would go to every adult regardless of health, employment, or marital status, in order to minimize government bureaucracy and intrusiveness into people's lives. The amount should be sufficient so that anyone who is unemployed can afford basic food and shelter. State or local governments should supplement that amount from local revenues where the cost of living is high."

"Enact a system of Community Ground Rent/Land Value Taxation that distinguishes between the socially and privately created wealth of land, by increasing the taxes on the former to retain for society the value that it collectively creates and lowers them on the latter to reward individuals for their initiative and work."

Maryland Libertarian Party Program:

Encourage efficient land use by reducing the tax on buildings and property improvements, leaving only assessments on land itself.

Clarence Darrow:

"The 'single tax' [on land value] is so simple, so fundamental, and so easy to carry into effect that I have no doubt that it will be about the last land reform the world will ever get. People in this world are not often logical."


"Woe unto them that join house to house,
that lay field to field, till there be no place,
that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!
In mine ears said the Lord of hosts,
Of a truth many houses shall be desolate,
even great and fair, without inhabitant."


"The land shall not be sold forever, for the land is Mine."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

"When the missionaries first came, they had the bible and we had the land. Now we have the bible and they have the land."

What to do now?

Those who wish to advance Martin Luther King's dream about sharing the earth and giving every citizen a basic income should contact Saving Communities (below), or any of the organizations listed at:

http://cgocouncil.org/ (click on "Georgist Organizations")

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