MLK’s Last Crusade Was the Poor People’s Campaign Against Poverty

At the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the poverty, racism and militarism that he saw as the triple threat to humanity.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Haven been feted by European kings, American presidents and African heads of state, King chose to cast his lot with sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., on strike to gain a living wage. On April 3, 1968, in Memphis, King delivered his last speech, where he defiantly vowed not to let “any illegal injunction” prevent a planned demonstration in the city the next day. “The greatness of America,” King shouted to the congregation, “is the right to protest for right!”

These words resound clearly in our own time, a period marked by rising economic inequality, racial strife and perpetual war around the world. Just as in King’s time, poverty in America is intimately linked to institutional racism and international wars that divert resources away from nation building at home.

Forty-six years after King’s death, the best way to honor his life and political legacy is to focus on the issues of poverty, race and war that marked his final political campaign. King’s willingness to challenge the status quo of economic injustice, racial segregation and inequality, and unwise warfare made him the object of scorn and derision. Yet his steadfast courage and risk taking offer an enduring lesson of political integrity, one that all activists should heed.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the newly released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.

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