Reuel Schiller on MLK and Economic Equality

Published on: Author: Jodi Short

In “Mourning King: The Civil Rights Movement and the Fight for Economic Justice,” recently published in the journal New Labor Forum, Reuel Schiller takes on the commonly espoused view that Martin Luther King’s assassination undermined the use of the Civil Rights Movement as a vehicle for broader efforts to combat multiracial economic equality. King was, famously, an advocate of multiracial economic equality. The legendary March on Washington was billed as a “March for Jobs and Freedom.” King was assassinated in Memphis, where he had traveled to support striking sanitation workers in their quest for higher wages and economic dignity. Nevertheless, Schiller argues that, even had King survived, the Civil Rights Movement likely would not have served as an effective vehicle for realizing his aspirations for economic equality.

First, Schiller argues that the Movement was always deeply divided about pursing multiracial economic equality to the potential detriment of political equality for African Americans. Indeed, over time, the Movement came to prioritize political and electoral goals over economic equality goals—partly because it was assumed that full political participation was a necessary precursor to economic equality.

Second, Schiller explains how successes in achieving political and electoral goals actually subverted the Movement’s commitment to economic equality. As African American politicians were elected in greater numbers, they became beholden to constituencies like local business owners who were resistant to economic redistribution. African American politicians fought to retain hard-won political victories by appeasing these constituencies and abandoning principles of economic justice.

Third, success at the ballot box had the effect of defusing mobilization in the streets. This left progressive politicians seeking to advance economic equality without the groundswell of popular support necessary to enact politically challenging redistributive policies.

In sum, Professor Schiller contributes to understandings of civil-rights history and social-movement mobilization by explaining why, with or without King, the Civil Rights Movement likely would not have become a vanguard movement to combat multiracial economic inequality.