It was a labor dispute that took Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis 50 years ago.

Sanitation workers were striking, and King’s support was part of the Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty initiative that he imagined would lead to another march on Washington.

Economic issues were central to King’s civil rights work. The 1963 demonstration he led in the capital was called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” And he frequently spoke of the need to fight poverty.

“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps,” King said in 1968.

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see than an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” he said in 1967.

King wrote in his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?, “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

The economic side of civil rights has long been overlooked, though it’s always been there. In a discussion about legislation in 1962, John F. Kennedy said there wasn’t much value in a man “obtaining the right to be admitted to hotels and restaurants if he has no cash in his pocket and no job.”

Fifty years after King’s assassination, income inequality has increased significantly.

With inequality still growing, who is carrying on King’s economic fight today?


  • Sarah Anderson Director, the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She also oversaw a study on American poverty, fifty years after the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.@Anderson_IPS
  • Nisha Patel Executive director, U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty at the Urban Institute; @heynisha
  • Rev. Dr. William Barber Protestant minister, national board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), chair of its Legislative Political Action Committee. He is also co-leading a revival of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Poor Peoples Campaign. @RevDrBarber
  • Terrance Wise Employee, McDonald's; leader of the "Fight for $15," a nationwide campaign to raise the minimum wage

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