Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The Other America” Still Radical 50 Years Later
March 10, 2018
Fifty years ago today—on March 10, 1968—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “The Other America” speech to supporters participating in a celebratory “Salute to Freedom,” organized by the Local 1199 in New York City. The Local 1199 was a union consisting largely of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other people of color. In his speech, Dr. King made a call to action to mobilize a multiracial movement of America’s poor. New York City was one of many stops in his travels across the country to seek possible allies for his Poor People’s Campaign. We’re sharing excerpts of his speech with you here. You can read it in full in The Radical King.
There are times, and I must confess it very honestly as many of us have to confess it as we look at contemporary developments, that I’m often disenchanted with some segments of the power structure of the labor movement. But in these moments of disenchantment, I begin to think of unions like Local 1199 and it gives me renewed courage and vigor to carry on . . . and the feeling that there are some unions left that will always maintain the radiant and vibrant idealism that brought the labor movement into being. And I would suggest that if all of labor would emulate what you have been doing over the years, our nation would be closer to victory in the ﬁght to eliminate poverty and injustice.
I’m going to really try to be brief, and say a few things about what is happening in our nation and try to say some things about our campaign, our Poor People’s Campaign, our campaign for jobs or income which will take place in a few weeks . . . and I want to deal with all of this by using as my subject tonight “The Other America.”
And I use this subject because there are literally two Americas. One America is ﬂowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality. That America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. That America is made up of millions of young people who grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.
But as we assemble here tonight, I’m sure that each of us is painfully aware of the fact that there is another America, and that other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In that other America, millions of people ﬁnd themselves forced to live in inadequate, substandard, and often dilapidated housing conditions. In these conditions they don’t have wall-to-wall carpets, but all too often they ﬁnd themselves living with wall-to-wall rats and roaches. In this other America, thousands, yea, even millions, of young people are forced to attend inadequate, substandard, inferior, quality-less schools, and year after year thousands of young people in this other America ﬁnish our high schools reading at an eighth- and a ninth-grade level sometimes. Not because they are dumb, not because they don’t have innate intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so overcrowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated, if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out.
And probably the most critical problem in the other America is the economic problem. By the millions, people in the other America ﬁnd themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. We only need look at the facts, and they tell us something tragic. . . . The fact is that the black man in the United States of America is facing a literal depression. Now you know they don’t call it that. When there is massive unemployment in the black community, it’s called a social problem. But when there is massive unemployment in the white community, it’s called a depression. With the black man, it’s “welfare,” with the whites it’s “subsidies.” This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.
Somewhere in life, people of justice and goodwill come to see the dignity of labor. . . . Somewhere they will come to see that person working in the hospital—even if he happens to be a janitor in the hospital—he is in the ﬁnal analysis as signiﬁcant as the physician, because if he doesn’t do his job, germs can develop, which can be as injurious to the patient as anybody else.
We look around and we see thousands and millions of people making inadequate wages every day. Not only do they work in our hospitals, they work in our hotels, they work in our laundries, they work in domestic service, and they ﬁnd themselves underemployed. You see, no labor is really menial unless you’re not getting adequate wages. People are always talking about menial labor. But if you’re getting a good wage . . . that isn’t menial labor. What makes it menial is the income, the wages.
Now, what we’ve got to do . . . is to attack the problem of poverty and really mobilize the forces of our country to have an all-out war against poverty, because what we have now is not even a good skirmish against poverty. I need not remind you that poverty, the gaps in our society, the gulfs between inordinate superﬂuous wealth and abject deadening poverty have brought about a great deal of despair, a great deal of tension, a great deal of bitterness. We’ve seen this bitterness expressed over the last few summers in the violent explosions in our cities.
And the great tragedy is that the nation continues in its national policy to ignore the conditions that brought the riots or the rebellions into being. For in the ﬁnal analysis, the riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America’s failed to hear? It’s failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of justice and freedom have not been met. It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, humanity, and equality, and it is still true. It is still true that these things are being ignored.
The problem with a riot is that it can always be halted by superior force, so I couldn’t advise that. On the other hand, I couldn’t advise following a path of Martin Luther King just sitting around signing statements, and writing articles condemning the rioters, or engaging in a process of timid supplications for justice. The fact is that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed—that’s the long, sometimes tragic and turbulent story of history. And if people who are enslaved sit around and feel that freedom is some kind of lavish dish that will be passed out on a silver platter by the federal government or by the white man while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite, he will never get his freedom.
So, I had to sit down with my friends and my associates and think about the people with whom I live and work all over the ghettos of our nation, and I had to try to think up an alternative to riots on the one hand, and to timid supplications for justice on the other hand. And I have come to see that it must be a massive movement organizing poor people in this country, to demand their rights at the seat of government in Washington, DC.
Now, I said poor people, too, and by that I mean all poor people. When we go to Washington, we’re going to have black people because black people are poor, but we’re going to also have Puerto Ricans because Puerto Ricans are poor in the United States of America. We’re going to have Mexican Americans because they are mistreated. We’re going to have Indian Americans because they are mistreated. And for those who will not allow their prejudice to cause them to blindly support their oppressor, we’re going to have Appalachian whites with us in Washington.
We’re going there to engage in powerful nonviolent direct action to demand, to bring into being an attention-getting dramatic movement, which will make it impossible for the nation to overlook these demands. Now, they may not do anything about it. People ask me, “Suppose you go to Washington and you don’t get anything?” You ask people and you mobilize and you organize, and you don’t get anything. You’ve been an absolute failure. My only answer is that when you stand up for justice, you can never fail.
The forces that have the power to make a concession to the forces of justice and truth and right, but who refuse to do it and they follow the path of darkness still, are the forces that fail. We, as poor people, going to struggle for justice, can’t fail. If there is no response from the federal government, from the Congress, that’s the failure, not those who are struggling for justice.
And I close by saying that let all of us assembled here continue to struggle for peace and justice. And, you know, they go together. I know there are those who still think they can be separated. They mention to me all the time, there are those who sincerely feel that. But I answered a man the other day who told me I should stick to civil rights, and not deal with the war thing and the war question in Vietnam. I told him that I had been ﬁghting too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concerns. And the fact is that justice is indivisible; injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
And the other thing is we’ve got to come to see that however much we’re misunderstood or criticized for taking a stand for justice or for peace, we must do it anyway. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. . . .
And I say that if we will stand and work together, we will bring into being that day when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. We will bring into being that day when America will no longer be two nations, but when it will be one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Thank you.
Excerpted from The Radical King, published by Beacon Press, 2015. All material copyright © Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.; all material copyright renewed © Coretta Scott King and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. Introductions © 2015 Cornel West.
Watch comedian Wanda Sykes perform an excerpt of Dr. King’s “The Other America.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), Nobel Peace Prize laureate and architect of the nonviolent civil rights movement, was among the twentieth century’s most influential figures. One of the greatest orators in US history, King also authored several books, including Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, and Why We Can’t Wait. His speeches, sermons, and writings are inspirational and timeless. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.