In her debut book, Laurent (American Studies/Paris Institute of Political Studies) draws on extensive research into Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings, speeches, and papers as well as archival and published sources to make a strong argument that his campaign for social justice went beyond race to encompass broad, transformative social and economic changes for all poor Americans.
As Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson points out in the foreword, historians and civil rights activists, deeming King’s Poor People’s Campaign a failure, “have failed to capture the import of King’s reframing of the civil rights movement in economic and redistributive terms.” Laurent takes her title from Michael Harrington’s 1962 book The Other America, which incited a renewed concern for poverty among social scientists, economists, and politicians, including President John F. Kennedy. In 1967, King gave two sermons titled “The Other America” and asked Harrington to write the blueprint for the Poor People’s Campaign. Laurent emphasizes the historical and intellectual underpinnings for King’s thoughts about poverty, particularly Frederick Douglass, “who ushered in a tradition of black radical thought dedicated to the idea of substantive justice,” and W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed that racial equality could not be achieved without social and economic equality. Among King’s contemporaries, Laurent cites John Kenneth Galbraith and Gunnar Myrdal as strong influences. “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism,” King said, “but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” He called for “broad structural reforms, addressing joblessness and lack of public resources in the American ghetto.” Among those resources were adequate housing, public mass transit (to help poor people get to jobs outside of the inner city), and education. Laurent praises King—a bit too repetitively—for his “clairvoyant analyses,” prescient intuition, and insights that were echoed by later economists and social scientists—and by current reformers calling for “a Marshall Plan for American’s poor.”
King’s analysis of social issues, as delineated in Laurent’s useful reappraisal, seems as relevant today.