Where Was Martin Luther King Heading?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."
"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
Value Taxation that distinguishes between the socially and privately
wealth of land, by increasing the taxes on the former to retain for
value that it collectively creates and lowers them on the latter to
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.
"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
http://cgocouncil.org/ (click on "Georgist Organizations")