In recalling the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, we most often call to mind the moving rhetoric of his sermons and public speeches. But King was also adept at clear and dispassionate analysis, as is seen in this essay published in Ebony magazine in May 1966. Here he reviewed what had been accomplished by the non-violent civil rights movement centered in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he led, describing its philosophy and methods. He also looked ahead to the work he thought the group now needed to undertake: alleviating poverty, particularly in America’s center cities, where the majority population was generally African American. In King’s view, poverty in the Northern inner city was an injustice equal to the denial of civil rights in the South, and he saw a role for African Americans in changing the conscience of America with regard to this poverty.
For high school classroom analysis, a particularly interesting portion of the essay begins under the heading “Strategy for Change.” This section explains the reasons King insisted on a nonviolent strategy in his movement. It then goes on to outline the new challenges presented by the effort to fight poverty. Here are excerpts:
The American racial revolution has been a revolution to “get in” rather than to overthrow. . . . If one is in search of a better job, it does not help to burn down the factory. If one needs more adequate education, shooting the principal will not help, or if housing is the goal, only building and construction will produce that end. . . . The nonviolent strategy has been to dramatize the evils of our society in such a way that pressure is brought to bear against those evils by the forces of good will in the community and change is produced. . . .
So far, we have had the Constitution backing most of the demands for change, and this has made our work easier . . . . Now we are approaching areas where the voice of the Constitution is not clear. . . . The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet, in a nation which has a gross national product of 750 billion dollars a year, it is morally right to insist that every person has a decent house, an adequate education and enough money to provide basic necessities for one’s family. Achievement of these goals will be a lot more difficult and require much more discipline, understanding, organization and sacrifice.