A Vision of the Promised Land: The Enduring Legacy of MLK’s Grassroots Campaign for Economic Justice


The life and legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrate that there is an inextricable link between civil rights and silver rights. The issue of economic justice has been both a political and spiritual concern. Discussions of poverty and economic exploitation have been synonymous with the demands of justice and righteousness for religious communities engaged in the public square. From the prophetic and priestly alike, the demands for social justice have been directed towards the halls of power. Religious platforms in public spaces have appealed to the moral conscience of an enormously wealthy nation. Since the founding of the United States, policies of social welfare have been undergirded by religious principles.

In comparison, capitalism has been the West’s undisputed economic system, various competing claims about how the system’s inequality can be buffered through policy and principle. One of the checks on the system has been the religious mandate of Christian benevolence. This pathos has gone beyond handouts to the poor. It has included combating systemic conditions that perpetuate poverty and misery. At the heart of the Christian gospel is the care and concern for the poor. Followers of Jesus Christ have looked to his teachings to understand civil society’s ethical demands, from the Sermon on the Mount to his parables on stewardship. Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God as a community of mutual responsibility for the “least of these.” Christ himself identified with the poor and the disadvantaged. The social mandates of the gospel as it applied to public life were a recognition that there could not be collective health and corporate harmony without ensuring the maintenance of material needs.

Following the Great Depression, pursuing justice for all turned especially towards the material well-being of all citizens. Many New Deal programs were enacted during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to salvage capitalism and alleviate the financial collapse’s ravaging effects on the middle and working-class alike. It was demonstrated that political imagination and goodwill could produce sweeping reforms and massive public programs such as Social Security, the Public Works Administration, and the minimum wage. Many of these programs created a new burgeoning white middle class rewarded with new jobs, economic stability, and homeownership. Unfortunately, many of these benefits were not equally extended to African Americans, who were excluded by racist policies and public opinion.  The lethal combination of Jim Crow practices and denial of voting rights maintained a system of American apartheid. Strong alliances were built between the labor movement and religious leaders to advocate on behalf of the working poor and disenfranchised. The modern civil rights movement, armed with the tenets of equal opportunity preached by the social gospel and ensconced in American idealism, emerged to combat the deleterious, dual effects of racism and capitalism. The most prominent heir to this tradition was a Black Baptist preacher from the South, armed with a Ph.D. from Boston University and a booming, baritone voice as a trumpet for justice: the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Since King’s assassination in 1968, his image and rhetoric have been appropriated by all manner of people. Although King was one of the most unpopular public figures at the time of his death, his persona has mysteriously become universally celebrated and usurped by many groups who have sought to advance their agendas. Conversely, some progressive groups have represented King as an unacceptable accommodationist or a defender of respectability politics. It is quite remarkable how such a revered figure can be so widely misinterpreted over 50 years after his demise. This article attempts to address how prescient King’s radical political vision was about America’s precipitous slide toward materialism at the expense of a truly democratic society. To halt the slide would require a revolution of values. The beloved community that King often preached about was the logical extension of the American Dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all the nation’s diverse citizenry. For King, it was worth both fighting and dying for.

The Long March to Freedom

Reclaiming King’s legacy is paramount in the face of a growing global economic crisis that a once-in-a-century pandemic has exacerbated. This crisis has placed in stark relief the persistence of systemic racism, highlighted by the brutal murders of African-American citizens George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at white police officers’ hands. This is an important point to raise since a vast majority of Americans have misunderstood or misappropriated King’s rhetoric and actions in advancing the oppressed. According to King scholars Lewis Baldwin and Rufus Burrow, there appears to be a “suffering from amnesia when it comes to the question of King’s legacy(Baldwin and Burrow 2013, xxi).  As Vincent Harding has said, King has become a “convenient hero” for those who would rather maintain the status quo or embrace safe gradualism. Baldwin and Burrow further expand on this point:

We are a part of a culture that has been and continues to be unwilling to come to grips with the radicality of King’s ideas and social praxis and is, therefore, more comfortable with a domesticated King, or one who is harmless, gentle, and a symbol of our confused sense of what it means to be Americans(Baldwin and Burrow 2013, xxi).

Efforts to interpret “King’s Dream” as a watered-down, politically anemic, color-blind utopia entirely overlook his challenge to dismantle white supremacy, monopoly capitalism, and brazen militarism.

The title of King’s last book before his death gives us two diametrically opposed options: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Implied in the question are only polar possibilities for the future: doom and gloom or peace and prosperity; hope or despair; concord or war; harmony or conflict; nonviolence or nonexistence. In the aftermath of uprisings in several American cities in the mid-1960s, King had concluded that civil rights and voting rights were not enough to solve our national dilemma. True justice could not occur without economic equality. The Johnson administration’s Great Society programs were not sufficient, especially after the Vietnam War had siphoned resources–both human (thousands of dead soldiers) and financial (funds for social programs) –from the neediest communities.

The perpetual problems produced by poverty amounted to what King defined as violence. America’s indifference to the poor was not only immoral but ultimately self-defeating for the entire society. He lodged his attacks first against the white power structure that controlled government and the means of production. It responded that the civil rights gains of the previous decade were sufficient. He then began to challenge white Americans who were complicit with the problem through apathy and benign neglect. King stated: 

The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. Unfortunately, this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. Too quickly, apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are taken. Laws are passed in a crisis mood after a Birmingham or a Selma, but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law itself is treated as the reality of the reform” (King 1967, 5).

The revolutionary and far-sighted significance of King’s words and actions resonated soon after his death. As urban riots erupted across the nation, elected officials and community leaders scrambled frantically to quell the unrest by enacting measures through legislation and social programs. Further proving King’s point, little was done to address the root causes of the problem: crass capitalism’s racial and economic injustice.  As a part of Johnson’s Great Society, Model Cities and other urban renewal programs were expanded or established to address the conditions of large concentrations of poor urban dwellers. New housing projects were built, and desegregation initiatives were advanced through school busing. Virtually nothing was done, however, to affect structural economic change.

Most people have freeze-framed their image of King as a peaceful warrior for racial justice, a utopian dreamer of a nation where his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  They often forget that his “I Have a Dream” speech was the headliner for the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” They overlook the opening lines of the 1963 speech which chastised America for not keeping her promise to her African American citizens:

So, we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men and white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, American has given the Negro a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice” (King 1986, 19).

Included in the 1963 image of King is one of him as a modern-day Moses. It is one of King overlooking hundreds of thousands of the new Israelite nation of many tribes, arms outstretched as if he was holding up a rod to part the Red Sea, standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. It seemed as if King described his dream by using the images of those persons as characters in his futuristic America, Black men and White men, Jews, and Gentiles, Protestants, and Catholics. He painted the picture of the promised land while he rehearsed his speech to Pharaoh to “Let my people go!” However, by the time King arrived at the 1968-mile marker, his scope of analysis had dramatically changed as it had become shaped by the unfilled promises of the many other characters and forces in that dream.

As King turned his attention to the pernicious effects of coarse capitalism buttressed by white supremacy, his gaze was directed to the distant promised land that he clairvoyantly preached about the last night of his life. The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) of 1968 represented a second phase of the civil rights movement.  Indeed, King had by 1968 become more acutely aware of the inextricable ties between systemic racial justice and structural economic inequality and re-directed the focus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) squarely upon this issue.  His vision for the promised land was the antithesis of the chaosof inequality and injustice perpetrated by the triple evils of racism, capitalism, and militarism.

The indelible impression of the civil rights movement has been the picture of African American people marching. The resolute faces of the demonstrators point to a destination that is a distant reality. Staring at their long strides and deliberate gaits, you can perceive that they are determined to get to a place called “Freedom.” In America, that destination has been elusive for its Black citizens.[1] To be sure, the journey began in this land where they were not citizens but chattel slaves with no rights: human, constitutional, or civil. As property who possessed no property, the prospect for a full humanity of modest prosperity was essentially null and void for America’s inhabitants of African descent. It can be likened to a never-ending military campaign. The battle has been fought on the fields of the South, the outposts of the West, and the black tops of the North. The fight has been for justice and equality and dignity and equity. The trek of African Americans from 1619 to 2019 and beyond has been headed in the same direction: freedom. The various valiant leaders along the path have made clarion calls to the oppressed troops as expressed in a famous Negro Spiritual:  “Walk together, Children, don’t you get weary. Walk together children, don’t you get weary. Walk together, Children, don’t you get weary. There’s a great camp-meeting in the promised land.”

King’s ominous last words sound like a self-proclaimed eulogy, presciently preached the night before he was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis: “I’ve been to the Mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But we as a people will get to the promised land!” The contours and features of the metaphorical promised land had evolved over the four centuries that African descendants had been in America. In his speeches, King had mapped the march’s progression from abolition to emancipation to reconstruction to integration. He had realized that their progress had been impeded by a massive structural impediment – capitalism – that was buttressed by racism and militarism. By the time he bellowed his last marching orders, he had fixed his eyes on the target and had dubbed this final crusade the “Poor People’s Campaign.”

There are many reasons PPC has waned in the collective narrative of civil rights history, not the least of which is the perception that King was out of his league as a black civil rights leader. While many in 1968 saw Resurrection City, the temporary poor people’s village set up in D.C., as an embarrassing failure and demonstration of the movement’s inefficacy, PPC’s legacy had an immediate and lasting impact on both policy and politics. In the last two decades, several scholars have sought to recapture the major significance of that campaign in history, position its mission in our understanding of King’s legacy, and explain its implications for our current American society.[2] This is especially poignant considering the persistent economic inequality that King so valiantly and vigorously fought to fix. Though King died before realizing the campaign, his shadow looms large over the long march to a promised land of economic justice. To understand King’s last major campaign is to appreciate his maturing grasp of the persistent problem of inequality in America.

The Turn toward Economic Justice

It is important to understand PPC in the context of the civil rights movement and its complementary paths of racial and economic justice. While the movement from 1955 to 1965 was primarily focused on racial integration of public accommodations and securing voting rights, King was never oblivious or uninformed on the deleterious effects’ capitalism had on society’s most vulnerable and marginalized citizens since reconstruction. Several scholars identify the various streams of liberal American thought and action that imbued the surge for justice, including the influence of the social gospel and the Black church upon King and other civil rights leaders.[3] There are various dimensions of political, philosophical, and theological influences that had energized the civil rights movement leading up to and beyond the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham campaign, the March on Washington, and the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts.  Even in the movement’s earliest days, it became clear to King that individual opportunity did not amount to racial equality. He long held a fundamental belief in democratic socialism as a corrective for capitalism’s debilitating effects upon poor and working-class people. King believed that the “insurgent democracy” (Laurent 2018, 1) of the dispossessed and the disinherited was the only way to redistribute power in what had become a “flawed liberal democracy” (Laurent 2018, 2).   As such, PPC was a call for America and its leaders to manifest a revolution of values that would enable human dignity and economic equality.

A Rainbow Coalition for Economic Justice

PPC was destined to be a new experiment in interracial, multi-class cooperation, and direct action. As the general of this newly formed army, King began to employ his lieutenants Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison to draft a road map to victory for the dispossessed. Entitled “The Crisis in America’s Cities, an Analysis of Social Disorder and Plan of Action against Poverty, Discrimination and Racism in Urban America,” the plan set its target on Washington, D.C. However, the coalition of the SCLC and the broader civil rights movement began to break ranks. Rustin had become more accommodationist and disagreed with King’s demand for a sweeping economic transformation. King was determined to expose the unholy alliance of racism, capitalism, and militarism. Simultaneously, he was resolute in building a new radical and egalitarian coalition. As Sylvie Laurent observes: “For the first time, a true multiracial gathering was taking place, propelling the struggle for freedom and equality to an unprecedented dimension and scope. In revolutionary fashion, poor whites were, along with groups of color, considered an exploited minority whose grievances had to be voiced” (Laurent 2018, 149).

King’s last campaign symbolized PPC’s thrust for sanitation workers in Memphis. Here, King demonstrated that the civil rights movement was fully aligned with the labor movement. He continued to expose the hypocrisy of capitalism, with poor people working for starvation wages in a nation of massive wealth. As King stated:

My friends, we are living as a people in a literal depression…Now the problem is not only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are the facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income (Laurent 2018, 149).

PPC proved the power of forging race, class, and gender alliances. By focusing on the deep indignities of poverty, King had built a bridge for the Black freedom struggle leading into the promised land of economic equality and social justice. He had drawn a straight line from the plot of civil rights to the territory of human rights. As a servant of the people, King was willing to fight for all people’s dignity and equality while challenging the assumptions of an economic system that kept residents in poverty while living in a house of prosperity. The refrain of King’s last couple of years was a clarion call to society to undergo a “revolution of values.” Like a 20th-century prophet peeking into the next century, King theorized the relationship between the desperation of the ghetto and the corporate class’s excesses. Published posthumously, The Trumpet of Conscience identified five factors that explained the urban riots: “a ‘white backlash’ that took the form of resistance to racial equality and hostility toward blacks who demand justice; discrimination across several social domains (housing, education, employment); high unemployment, especially among black youth; blacks’ disproportionate conscription into an unjust war in Vietnam; and inadequate public services in black neighborhoods” (Shelby 2019, 190).

A New Vanguard of the Vision for Economic Justice

A PPC renaissance is evident today in several streams of the ongoing Black freedom movement that has reemerged amid a grassroots and wholesale repudiation of the capitalist system’s values. Central to the movement’s philosophy is a recognition of the devaluing of African American lives and poor people. Eddie Glaude underscores this feature:

The crisis currently engulfing black America and the country’s indifference to the devastation it has wrought illustrate what I call the value gap. We talk about the achievement gap in education or the wealth gap between white Americans and other groups. However, the value gap reflects something more fundamental: that no matter our stated principles or how much progress we think we have made, white people are valued more than others in this country, and the fact continues to shape the life chances of millions of Americans. The value gap is in our national DNA (Glaude 2016, 31).

More than 50 years after King’s death, there are two prominent political manifestations of PPC’s vision: The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and The New Poor People’s Campaign (NPPC). There are more examples.  Attention will be paid to these two as prime examples of how PPC’s legacy has found resonance in a contemporary socio-economic context. Both have exposed the growing schism between the wealthy and the poor and how America’s addiction exacerbates the relationship between racism and capitalism to free-market capitalism. 

Arguably, M4BL is the most prominent expression of the civil rights movement this century. It takes King’s call for economic justice to the next phase, demanding rights and reparations. King hinted at a call for reparations but instead couched it in his call for a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged. As early as 1963, King discussed in Why We Can’t Wait how America could repay African Americans:

No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. … I am proposing, therefore, that just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launches a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial (King 2000, 68).

Ta-Nehisi Coates, meanwhile, has made a persuasive case for reparations in his much-heralded 2014 essay in The Atlantic

… we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world. What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe (Coates 2014).

The Occupy Wall Street movement previewed M4BL and NPPC following the 2008 economic collapse. Many people lost their homes, jobs, and savings while bankers and financiers received big bonuses. They became the “99%” in stark contrast to the one percent who controlled most of the wealth. It has become clear that the current economic system is not working for most citizens. In 2001, Joseph Stiglitz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his brilliant analysis of this phenomenon that he described in The Price of Inequality:

The underlying thesis is that we are paying a high price for our inequality – an economic system that is less stable and less efficient, with less growth, and a democracy that has been put into peril. But even more is at stake: as our economic system is seen to fail for most citizens, and as our political system seems to be captured by moneyed interests, confidence in our democracy and in our market economy will erode along with our global influence (Stiglitz 2012, xxii).

King had predicted that without a revolution of values, our nation would experience a moral crisis. We were becoming more obsessed with technology and the accumulation of wealth than the flourishing of human potential:  “One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually” (King 2000, 181).  Stiglitz picks up where King left off in his analysis of our market system:

Much of what has gone on can only be described by the words “moral deprivation.” Something wrong happened to the moral compass of so many people working in the financial sector and elsewhere. When the norms of a society change in a way that so many have lost their moral compass, it says something significant about the society (King 2000, xvii).

M4BL emerged after the highly publicized murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown in 2013. M4BL, however, had been precipitated by an escalating barrage of assaults on black humanity in many dimensions: increased racial animus and hostility, directly and indirectly, related to the first African American president of the United States; the proliferation of the prison industrial complex and racially unjust laws; escalating police violence toward African American citizens; and the revocation and suppression of African Americans’ voting rights. Rather than an organization, M4BL characterizes itself as an “ecosystem” consisting of “individuals and organizations creating a shared vision and policy agenda to win rights, recognition, and resources for Black people” (M4BL 2021).

#BlackLivesMatter, launched as a social media hashtag in July 2013, encapsulated the centuries-long struggle for African American affirmation and self-determination. In this instance, it began as a valentine to African Americans that turned into a rallying cry against injustice in the wake of the Martin and Brown murders. A groundswell of protest was activated around the country, as thousands of African Americans and allies began to protest in various cities, culminating in the Ferguson demonstrations. Two aspects of this protest movement were markedly different from the civil rights movement.  First, it was led primarily by women, and second, it was intentionally not centered on a singular, charismatic leader. Instead, its focus was on the method and the message: Black Lives Matter.

The intellectual and spiritual masterminds of the Black Lives Matter Network (which is part of a larger M4BL coalition) are Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Garza describes the origins of #BlackLivesMatter:

I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and, unfortunately, our movements.

Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression (Black Lives Matter 2021).

M4BL has picked up where King left off in his strident critique of America’s “triple evils”:  racism, materialism, and militarism. Like King and PPC’s Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, M4BL has a platform that includes a demand for economic justice. M4BL has also called for reparations: “We demand reparations for past and continuing harms. The government, responsible corporations and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people — from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance — must repair the harm done” (M4BL n.d.).

NPPC, led by Bishop William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, has issued a “National Call for a Moral Revival.” Barber is a pastor and civil rights activist who is the former president of the North Carolina NAACP and the Moral Monday’s movement organizer.  Theoharis, a biblical scholar, is the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church. NPPC, in contrast to M4BL and its largely secular leadership, is spearheaded by clergy and is decidedly religious and ecumenical, drawing on King’s theological and philosophical foundations for moral and political activism. The organization has drawn a direct connection to King and the original PPC, calling for a “revolution of values” and a federal intervention on behalf of the poor. NPPC’s platform is much broader and more far-reaching than the original movement. However, the case has been made upon the intersectionality of economic injustice and how it has proliferated in the past 50 years.[4] The NPPC platform begins with the question of poverty of inequality: “Did you know that while the U.S. economy has grown 18-fold in the past 50 years, wealth inequality has expanded, the costs of living have increased, and social programs have been restructured and cut dramatically?” (PPC n.d.).  NPPC has led many protests and issued pronouncements calling for a more fair, just, and equitable society rooted in a litany of demands in several categories but with a particular focus on economic justice.

Some of the M4BL’s adherents have openly shunned the civil rights movement’s ideas and tactics, dismissing King’s “accommodationist” and “respectability politics” as no longer applicable to victims of 21st-century systemic racism and classism. They indeed were not interested in acceptance from the white establishment nor the imprimatur of the African American establishment. It thus appeared early on that M4BL’s architects had chosen very different models, mantras, and mentors. This would inevitably create tensions between the old and new guards. For many of M4Bl’s activists, the old guard had sought personal aggrandizement and attainment at the expense of the masses. When it came to police profiling and brutality, the new generation had become increasingly impatient while developing a keen analysis of the problem. As activist and author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out, “[Y]oung activists were beginning to politically generalize from the multiple cases of police brutality and develop a systemic analysis of policing. Many began to articulate a much broader critique that situated policing within a matrix of racism and inequality in the United States and beyond” (Keeanga-Yamahatta 2016, 162).  Unfortunately, and in my opinion, many M4BL activists lack a proper understanding and appreciation of the radical and comprehensive analysis of racism that King had developed and used to advocate for overhauling American capitalism. 

NPPC’s principles could be perceived as directly adopted from Kingian philosophy and the goals of the original PPC, especially the first five:

  1. We are rooted in a moral analysis based on our deepest religious and constitutional values that demand justice for all. Moral revival is necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy.
  2. We are committed to lifting up and deepening the leadership of those most affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation and building unity across division lines.
  3. We believe in the dismantling of unjust criminalization systems that exploit poor communities and communities of color and the transformation of the “War Economy” into a “Peace Economy” that values all humanity.
  4. We believe that equal protection under the law is non-negotiable.
  5. We believe that people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. Blaming the poor and claiming that the United States does not have an abundance of resources to overcome poverty are false narratives used to perpetuate economic exploitation, exclusion, and deep inequality (PPC n.d.).

America has dealt with competing visions of democracy throughout its history. The defense of the American Dream has been infused with myths of equal opportunity. The millions of poor and working-class people have encountered a veritable nightmare of disappointment in the face of concentrated wealth. One of the countervailing forces in opposition to oligarchy and the ruling class has been the social gospel movement in which King was both an heir and champion. This movement has been in solidarity with other movements, including the labor and socialist movements. Many of the persons and groups associated with these movements were deliberately labeled radical and dangerous. They were deemed politically and socially antithetical to American democracy, which had become synonymous with capitalism. Capitalism remained barely checked by political forces. The consequences of this negligence were widening gulfs in wealth disparity, especially for people of color. King presaged a continuing dilemma for the United States and the global community. His call for a revolution of values was also a call for a return, at least in principle, to the Christian ideals of love, concern, and sharing with our neighbors. To have liberty and justice for all, America would need to begin to show preferential care for “the least of these” that Jesus preached about in the Gospel of Matthew.


NPPC signals a reclamation of the Black social gospel and its theological commitment to economic, racial, and social justice. It has been enlarged and ennobled by a commitment to gender and environmental justice. This points to a return to a central mission of the Black Church and liberal evangelical Christianity. King’s beloved community, shaped by the philosophies of great theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch, Howard Thurman, and Benjamin Mays, is always expanding, first by his explicit advocacy for “the least of these,” and then by the contemporary generation of prophet-activists. It seems as if King, in his last sermons and writings, was asking the nation if it was willing to work for the beloved community or accept the “chaos” of inequality and injustice. Are we ready to move into the promised land of milk and honey for all people, or are we prepared to settle for the ruins created by selfishness, greed, corruption, and competition? The same question is asked of us today. This is an opportunity for America to forge a new path of prosperity, paved not with silver and gold but with the values of love, inclusion, liberty, justice, and power for all.


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Stiglitz, Joseph. The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahatta. From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation. Boston: Haymarket Books, 2016.

[1] In this essay, the terms “African-American” and “Black” are used interchangeably.  In most instances, it is used as a modifier of the historic religiopolitical aggregate known as the Black Church, made up of several denominations and expressions. Black is also a political referent prominently used to continue the Black Freedom Struggle, which spans eras (i.e., #BlackLivesMatter).

[2] Several volumes focus on King’s turn toward economic justice.  See, for instance,Thomas F. Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Michael Honey, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018); and Sylvie Laurent, King, and the Other America: The Poor People’s Campaign and the Quest for Economic Equality (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018).

[3] See the work of Gary Dorrien, Lewis Baldwin, Rufus Burrow, and Stewart Burns.

[4] See the work of Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, and Robert Reich.