Over the course of his public ministry, between the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956 and the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., wove together African American dreams of freedom with global dreams of political and economic equality. King opposed racism, imperialism, poverty, and political disfranchisement in increasingly radical terms. Often he referred to the American civil rights movement as simply one expression of an international human rights revolution that demanded economic rights to work, income, housing, and security. For most Americans, however, King's freedom dreams have become a sound bite recorded in August 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, when he envisioned a world where all men sit down together at the table of brotherhood and children are judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." King overshadows the mass movement that made him famous, his sharp, dissident critique compressed into simple messages of nonviolence and American democracy celebrated as an accomplished fact rather than thwarted as a deferred dream.
Few Americans recall the discordant notes with which King began his legendary speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One hundred years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Negroes still wore shackles of segregation, discrimination, and impoverishment. They existed "on a lonely island of poverty," banished to "the corners of American society." The nation's founders had issued a "promissory note" guaranteeing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all Americans. But the check bounced when black Americans tried to collect. "We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation," King's voice boomed from his electronic pulpit. Negroes were demanding "the riches of freedom and the security of justice." The March on Washington pushed to the foreground economic needs and demands that reflected the movement's broadening social base and ongoing northern struggles for jobs and justice. Dreams of economic justice had long been central to the black freedom struggle and to King's social gospel vision. Though activists could speak of winning civil, political, and economic rights in sequence, many also considered these human rights as mutually reinforcing and international in scope.
By 1965, King's radical voice rang more clearly when he confessed that his dream had turned into "a nightmare." The dream shattered when whites murdered voting rights workers in Alabama, when police battled blacks in Los Angeles, when he met jobless and "hopeless" blacks on desperate Chicago streets, and when he saw hunger and poverty in rural Mississippi and Appalachia. But King picked up the shards of his shattered dreams and reassembled them into more radical visions of emancipation for all poor people. As he preached on July 4, 1965, "I still have a dream that one day all of God's children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, and freedom for their spirits." Later that year he dared to dream: "One day men will no longer walk the streets in search for jobs that did not exist . . . one day the rat-infested slums of our nation will be plowed into the junk heaps of history." Dreams of decent jobs, affordable integrated housing, and adequate family incomes remained central to King's public ministry until his death.
As the first half of this book makes clear, King's vision of economic freedom was rooted in his intellectual development and early experiences in the southern black freedom movement. Since the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, King had repeatedly urged blacks to dream of a world free of racism, militarism, and "materialism." For King, materialism encompassed the irrational inequalities of wealth under the American system, the "tragic exploitation" of a racially divided working class, and the morally corrosive and socially isolating obsession with individual success. As early as 1956, King publicly described his dream of a world in which "privilege and property [are] widely distributed, a world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes," a "world in which men will throw down the sword" and learn to love and serve others.
Movement veterans never forgot King's radicalism. In the accurate, sardonic words of Vincent Harding, King's legacy has been compressed into "safe categories of 'civil rights leader,' 'great orator,' harmless dreamer of black and white children on the hillside." Documenting King's radicalism but overstating the degree to which the events of the 1960s radicalized him, David Garrow argued in his seminal books that King transformed himself from a "reassuring reformer" into "a radical threat" to America's class system and dominant institutions. By November 1966, King concluded that the movement's most stubborn obstacles "were economic rather than legal, and tied much more closely to questions of class than to issues of race," Garrow argues. It is true that in 1968, King affirmed publicly what he had denied ten years earlier: that blacks were engaged in "a class struggle." But since the 1940s, King consistently had understood race and class as mutually reinforcing structures of unequal power. As a young man, King recognized racism's "malignant kinship" with the nation's class-based power structures; over time, his understanding of their deeply intertwined roots only became more sophisticated. In 1956 he committed himself to winning "political and economic power for our race." Later he advocated liberation from the coercive control of the "slum colony" that had been constructed by public agencies and private interests to isolate and exploit poor and working-class blacks. King's early critiques of the southern "oligarchy" and of "business control" over the state became more thorough indictments of state capitalism as it reinforced middle-class and corporate privilege and consigned jobless and poorly paid workers to reserve armies of "cheap surplus labor."
Even in the 1950s, King was never simply a "civil rights" leader unconcerned with the national political economy. Many authors echo Adam Fairclough's notion that King was a "non-ideological pragmatist" before he was radicalized in 1965, that he regarded racism as a southern problem and was only vaguely concerned with capitalism. Like his father, King advocated thrift, hard work, "economic individualism," and self-help, Fairclough argues. Again it is true that King in 1965 stopped preaching that the Negro should lift himself up by his "bootstraps." But King was much more radical, earlier and more consistently, than he is credited for being. He always conceived of self-help to include collective mutual aid and black political assertion as much as individual self-improvement. Self-help was perfectly consistent with broad social and governmental "action programs." King also denounced the more "subtle" but equally insidious forms northern racism assumed, especially segregated and unequal housing. He criticized "class systems" that segmented black America, even when he did not openly call for an American class struggle. Historians have rediscovered the underlying continuity of "individualist" civil rights goals and "collectivist" social welfare goals in the freedom movement since the 1930s, while others document consistent white resistance to black assertions of basic constitutional and economic rights in the North and South before the 1960s. Those who argue that a dramatically radicalizing freedom movement precipitated its own decline in the mid-1960s overlook the continuity and ferocity of both black assertion and white resistance.
King's opposition to racism, war, and poverty did grow more overtly radical in the 1960s as the nation became polarized over these issues. He advocated increasingly militant protest tactics, from boycotting and marching to civil disobedience and mass urban disruption. He hoped the national government would move from guaranteeing legal protections for civil and voting rights to spending billions of dollars for full employment, income guarantees, and massive reconstruction of urban communities. Yet King was already radical by 1964, even as he tailored his messages to liberal or moderate audiences.
King did not rise up suddenly against poverty and war when American cities burned and Vietnamese villagers fled American napalm. His lifelong convictions grew from deep roots in the black freedom movement and the democratic left. He sought to win equality and political power for African Americans and to further economic justice for all Americans. As early as 1958, he called for world disarmament and a global war on poverty. His opposition to the Vietnam War in 1965 emerged from his lifelong internationalism.
King's ideology and leadership emerged from and fed back into the political culture of the democratic left. Throughout the 1950s, the noncommunist interracial democratic socialist left opposed cold war militarism, white supremacy, and class power. In black churches and progressive seminaries, on college campuses and in many trade unions, a tradition of often religiously inspired democratic socialism that had been vibrant during the 1930s and 1940s endured through the Red Scare of the 1950s. Historical studies of northern movements, women activists, and national civil rights organizations reveal that a locally diverse nationwide black freedom movement gained momentum much earlier than the 1950s. Many activists believed that racial and economic justice were indissoluble. Appreciating the movement's most immediate roots in the New Deal and the Popular Front of the late 1930s and 1940s, we no longer speak of it in narrowly southern terms or entertain the fiction that the movement "moved north" after 1964. Since the 1930s, national civil rights organizations continuously pursued a "dual agenda" of civil rights and economic justice, Charles and Dona Hamilton show. Race "has always been fused with class in the political struggle to obtain equitable policies" for black people.
King absorbed and popularized this radical interracial American tradition. But radicals of the 1960s tended to dismiss King's ideas, for he and his social democratic circle stood outside the student led New Left and offered alternatives to revolutionary Marxism and revolutionary nationalism. King criticized Marxism for its materialism and for its subordination of the person to the state. He opposed revolutionary black nationalism for espousing political violence, failing to develop solutions to metropolitan inequality, and denying that African Americans' destiny is bound up with that of whites and other racial-ethnic groups. King and his circle offered radical alternatives in response to disillusioning setbacks in civil rights, economic policy, and foreign policy in the mid-1960s. They criticized the insufficient funding and undemocratic structures of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Though critical of nationalist economic strategies, King nevertheless used nationalist terms of analysis to oppose institutional racism in employment, housing and the local administration of education, welfare, and criminal justice. He struggled to find nonviolent alternatives to the uprisings that convulsed the nation's ghettos between 1964 and 1968. His synthesis of nonviolence, integration, black power, and social democratic planning for full employment was a powerful challenge to the centrist liberalism of Kennedy and Johnson.
To trace the development of King's radicalism therefore requires careful attention to change, continuity, and above all, context. King indeed spoke of phases in the movement's strategic objectives. Early movement protests asserting African American "dignity" on buses and at lunch counters cost the nation little, but by 1964 the movement demanded costly programs to guarantee "opportunity" for everyone. "It is not a constitutional right that men have jobs, but it is a human right," he asserted in 1965. Just as often King spoke of deeper continuities in the movement's commitments to winning civil and economic rights. King's activism, sermonizing, rhetoric, writings, correspondence, and interviews reveal a continuous evolution in his thinking through changing contexts, rather than a radical departure at a specific juncture. Almost every radical "set piece" historians cite from King's final years can be found in some form much earlier. King has been variously interpreted because he varied his rhetorical repertoire in relation to diverse audiences. Like Walt Whitman, he could contradict himself because he sought to contain democratic multitudes. King kept basic terms of liberalism and radicalism constantly in play, and the continuities are remarkable. His dialectic of prophetic vision and political strategy transcended any singular tradition or influence, religious or secular, black or white, American or international. Already on the left as a result of his upbringing, his education, and his immersion in traditions of black and interracial activism, King by 1965 was further radicalized by the movement's praxis, its dynamic interplay of theory and practice, and especially the tension between high expectations and painful disillusionment that the 1960s presented. Rooted in Christian social gospel traditions, King drew on the legacy of civil rights unionism and democratic socialism, on the inspiration of anticolonial movements, and on the intellectual ferment on the democratic left as it confronted cold war liberalism. After 1965, the "social learning" and the "emergent ideas" of the movement itself radicalized King and many others.
Contexts of Influence and Persuasion
Veteran organizer Robert Parris (Bob) Moses once compared King to a single wave in the vast ocean of the movement, inviting scholars to turn from the study of King to collective and grassroots movements. Historian Nathan Huggins responded that "the person in history is important" and that King's enormous wave can teach us much about the ocean. This study examines the wave and the ocean and their relationship. As an interracial ambassador, mobilizer, mediator, prophetic dreamer, and politician, King remains exciting today as a lens through which to view the social, ideological, and political crosscurrents of his time and the traditions of thought and action that shaped him.
To understand King fully, we must understand who inspired him and whom he sought to persuade: early influences, advisors, fractious colleagues, media interpreters, critics, competitors, and vilifiers, national leaders and local activists, humble people he sought to empower and powerful people he sought to bend. King appealed to the broad white middle class, whose idealism and political energies were essential to dreams of a renewed liberalism. He depended on and needed the cooperation of militant black activists in mobilizing people at the grassroots. He increasingly believed that poor black folk were his primary constituency in any successful war on racism and poverty. King played multiple roles, even when they threatened to tear him apart. The tension between his media celebrity and his identity as an indigenous mass leader was especially agonizing. The publicity he received as a result of the Montgomery bus boycott anointed him interpreter of the civil rights movement to whites. But King was also a mobilizer, seeking to empower black people through politics and protest, not just make their goals acceptable to whites.
King often described himself as a mediator between moderates and militants, avoiding two ineffective extremes: on the one hand traditional Negro leaders bargained with whites and won concessions, but became beholden to white patronage and unresponsive to black communities; on the other hand revolutionary hotheads inspired the masses to action, but provoked repression and wrecked chances for interracial reconciliation. King's solution was to remain unbought and nonviolent, which he achieved with the help of 50,000 Montgomery blacks in 1956. In 1963, King embraced a more coercive nonviolent strategy that orchestrated local confrontation to dramatize southern racism to the world and force federal government intervention to protect equal rights and dismantle the most egregious forms of white supremacy. Though SCLC did not engage in sustained local community organizing, the Birmingham crisis of 1963 and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act confirmed for many the power of this strategy of "nonviolent theater." Until his assassination, King continued to pursue this strategy in the hope of shaping national policies involving voting rights, poverty, urban power, and international peace.
King also faced the challenge of assembling and holding together a progressive coalition that could build power locally and orchestrate pressure for change nationally. Although local organizers saw the world differently from social democrats concerned with national economic planning, King knew that social change came when grassroots movements and national initiatives converged. King conceded in his last book that he had not been an effective local "organizer" of people in an ongoing struggle. Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") criticized him for flying into communities with ongoing movements, drawing media attention to dramatic confrontations, and then leaving others to pick up the pieces. But, whether blacks faced police dogs or "slum colonialism," King countered that such problems could not be resolved locally when black people faced intractable elites and structures of metropolitan inequality. King therefore developed powerful strategies to arouse larger constituencies and move the federal government to protect civil rights and end poverty. King underestimated the resistance of elites, the ferocity of white working-class racism, and the shallowness of white middle-class supporters out in their suburban refuges of racial innocence and complacent individualism. He expected too much from the federal government and the strategy of protest. Arguably his failings were also America's. King appealed to the central tenets of liberalism—equality, justice, freedom, community participation, a belief in positive government. He never abandoned these terms, but he concluded that radical means and radical new constituencies would have to mobilize power against compromised liberalism and resurgent conservatism.
King himself, journalists, and ordinary people all shaped and contested his symbolism as "the American Gandhi." Although political celebrity is properly the subject of another study, it structured many of the dilemmas King faced. White journalists and news consumers proved overwhelmingly concerned with the possibilities of violence inherent in nonviolent protests. They placed King in dualistic opposition to militants such as Malcolm X and asked who would win the loyalties of the black urban masses. Reporters confined King to narrow "frames" of "civil rights" leadership that minimized his demands for more costly changes in public policies on jobs, housing, and welfare. Invariably, King was cast as "the general" and local leaders his "lieutenants" in a way that obscured the array of community issues and roles that local leaders, especially women, played in the grassroots organizations that did not make the headlines but certainly made history.
King's concern with forging coalitions across lines of race and class helps explain the diversity and eclecticism of his evolving ideas. He hoped to energize and coordinate three broad political constituencies. First, African Americans needed to unify across class lines, joining the resources and leadership of the black middle class to the protest energies of "the masses." Accordingly, King criticized middle-class black individualism and consumerism by insisting that Christian service mattered more than worldly success. Second, reaching across racial lines to white leaders and the white middle class, King mixed religious idealism and secular American traditions of equal rights. Liberals, especially in the North, had to be galvanized to support equality in schools, neighborhoods, and corridors of government, to look beyond their suburbs of sovereign privilege and act in the interest of the metropolis as a whole. King was adept at stretching the terms of civic nationalism toward ideals of social democracy. Equal rights to integrated education and political participation depended on fulfillment of human rights to economic security and dignified, well-paid work. King stretched the meaning of integration beyond desegregation and colorblind fairness to demand structural changes in the geography of homeownership, the relations and compensations of work, and shared political power. In his third and most difficult mobilizing challenge, King hoped to revive the insurgent populism of the 1930s and the civil rights unionism of the 1940s. Dreaming of a powerful Negro-labor alliance for "democratic socialism" that was committed to organizing workers, especially in the antiunion South, King eventually sought to mobilize a "legion of the deprived." He dreamed of uniting organized and unorganized workers, the unemployed, welfare-reliant mothers, and the poor of all racial-ethnic groups. Only the most progressive interracial unions—the meatpackers, the hospital workers, and the public employee unions—stood by him to the end. The mainstream of the labor movement chose to defend its racial privileges in jobs and housing and maintain its loyalties to the Democratic Party and Lyndon Johnson over the risky alliance King offered.
Despite the prominence of women as grassroots leaders in community based organizing for civil rights, King's discourse, models of leadership, and policy solutions all showed gender biases common to many of his contemporary male civil rights leaders and ministers. Though dedicated to the racial struggle, movement women wanted respect for their contributions, for their grassroots oriented organizing styles, and for the issues that concerned them. Recent scholars criticize King's "sexism" without examining his complex relationships or the concepts of black "manhood" (which black women often shared) that structured black resistance. Though King made it clear he wanted a wife and homemaker, he married a strong, independent woman in Coretta Scott and did not narrowly circumscribe her public role. Yet, for most of King's career, the "Negro" in his rhetoric was gendered male, seeking to be the family breadwinner and asserting himself in politics as a courageous freedom fighter. "The Negro does not want to languish on welfare rolls anymore than the next man," King wrote in 1964. Black men deserved a "family wage" sufficient to support their wives and children, he believed, even though black married women had a long history in the paid labor force. A few black women activists challenged this norm, but black feminism did not fully develop as an independent theory until the 1970s. Most African American men and women shared aspirations for white recognition of black "manhood," and many black women's definitions of freedom involved not being compelled by poverty to slave in white kitchens. Arguably, King never fully abandoned the ministerial tendency to speak "for" the poor rather than acting as a catalyst for their own self-emancipation. But in his later years King displayed a growing appreciation of women's difficulties and contributions as mother workers, wage workers, culture carriers, and community leaders. Septima P. Clark criticized King's sexism but came to appreciate his support for her grassroots citizen education efforts. She also admired the fact that he incorporated women's welfare rights agenda into his own in 1968. King demanded adequate incomes for women whose primary labor remained child rearing, as well as guaranteed jobs and decent wages for both men and women.
Dilemmas and Dreams
King's dilemmas were those of the postwar black freedom movement and American left. With his keen dialectical habit of mind, King struggled to resolve tensions between race and class, political and economic empowerment, moderate and militant nonviolence, American constitutional rights and international human rights, equal opportunity and compensatory justice, cold war freedom and anticolonial liberation, self-help and government activism, integration and black power. King suggested syntheses that could help forge effective progressive coalitions in diverse movement contexts. Usually we hear King echoing the values and languages of specific audiences, yet challenging them with antithetical truths, stretching their terms of understanding and prodding them to think and act in new directions. King offered syntheses that transcended false dichotomies of theory and action. For example, for black militants and the whites they frightened, King redefined black power to mean full integration into America's political and economic institutions. For those disappointed with the limitations of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, King offered a synthesis of local empowerment, affirmative action, urban reconstruction, and full employment to benefit all workers.
At its most basic level, King's nonviolence aimed to transcend the destructive alternatives of passive acquiescence to oppression and revolutionary violence, both of which perpetuated hierarchies of power and engendered lasting resentments. Before 1956, King was already steeped in an African American Gandhian tradition that called for close identification between leaders and masses in the struggle. During the Montgomery bus boycott, King embraced the requirements of national and international Gandhian symbolism; as northern Gandhians pressed him to rid his home of guns and bodyguards, King adopted a philosophical as well as tactical commitment to nonviolence shared by few southern activists. The moderate side of the Gandhian symbol called for restraint, responsibility, and reassurance. But King's nonviolence was not an ideology of containment or a denial of militancy. He continually defied others' definitions of proper Gandhian action and often asserted the radically egalitarian implications of Gandhian nonviolence. Nonviolence demanded genuine equality among the oppressed as well as equality with and independence from oppressors. Most important, King had to pragmatically confront entrenched white assumptions that almost any political assembly of black people might initiate mass violence and must be forcibly suppressed. Even liberal politicians and journalists saw nonviolent street protests as unjustifiable provocations to violence. Protesters exercising their First Amendment rights were held responsible for "unrest" and "racial tensions" unless it was absolutely clear that brutal violence had been forced upon them. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) found ways to dramatize to the nation the inherent violence of white supremacy. But, as Pat Watters and Reese Cleghorn have argued, mainstream news coverage amplified the national obsession with violence. Reporters tallied up "box scores of broken heads" without substantially explaining the creative and potentially redemptive power of nonviolence. And in covering the action, they typically downplayed the constitutional and economic grievances motivating black protest. King's political commitment to nonviolence was informed by a realistic appreciation of the history and possibility of lethal white repression, a fear borne out tragically in the late 1960s.
In seeking to forge progressive coalitions, King confronted complex dilemmas of race and class. Unprecedented postwar prosperity and the growth of the middle class coincided with persistent poverty and racial exclusion. Most poor people were white, but higher proportions of blacks and other minorities were poor, unemployed, and ill served by often discriminatory public institutions, such as welfare and police departments and schools. Widening class stratification increasingly strained the idea of a black "community," although an increasingly prosperous black middle class could supply leadership and resources for the racial struggle. Could the black freedom movement unify across lines of class and forge enduring alliances with members of all races disadvantaged by class? The racist oligarchy of the South, the chief obstacle to national reform, seemed unconquerable without a revival of the left-led, class-based Negro-labor alliance of the 1930s and 1940s. That required a creative approach to anticommunism as well as white supremacy. The movement also needed a strategy to transform white class ideology and political alignments across metropolitan landscapes of relative racial and class privilege. Blacks' most immediate competitors for jobs, housing, schooling, and services were working-class whites, who King and the movement challenged in many sites. Their fierce resistance corroded the possibilities for an interracial working-class alliance, as had been the case since the 1940s at least. Middle-class whites in suburban refuges beyond the reach of black protest could afford to disdain working-class racism and support Dr. King—up to a point. King tried to persuade them that the homes and neighborhoods they regarded as individual class achievements were in fact massively subsidized collective spaces of racial and class privilege. Business elites, politicians, and middle-class whites needed to be persuaded or coerced into redistributing political and economic power, easing the burdens of integration on the black and white working class by creating jobs, housing, and secure family incomes for all. King and his circle tried, but never resolved these dilemmas of class coalitions and power. For example, their campaign to challenge metropolitan inequality by marching on homogenous white working-class neighborhoods in Chicago's inner suburbs in 1966 did little to galvanize ghetto blacks, strengthen the working-class coalition, or awaken the conscience of the middle class to press Congress to pass open housing legislation. King then looked to mobilize poor people of all ethnicities to dramatically march in Washington, D.C., in 1968, hoping to pressure government and the middle class to wage a real war on poverty.
America's crusade against international communism existed in some tension with the American left's allegiances with movements of national liberation in Asia and Africa. King frequently spoke as a cold war liberal, hoping that U.S. competition with the Soviets and Chinese Communists for the loyalties of the world's "uncommitted peoples" would compel the United States to end homegrown apartheid, which became dramatically visible on the world stage with the spread of new media of mass communication. But King's principal loyalties were with emerging nations shucking off colonial rule. The southern black freedom struggle and anticolonial movements were both expressions of a global human rights revolution against "political domination and economic exploitation." New nations had to overcome economic underdevelopment and poverty, which were the legacies of colonialism. So too was African American poverty the legacy of slavery and segregation; political empowerment and civic equality necessarily pointed to economic emancipation as a precondition for full freedom. King consistently argued that rich Western nations had moral and political responsibilities to redress global poverty, something they would never do without world disarmament. In the 1950s, he began a lifelong commitment to ending the South African apartheid regime through nonviolent resistance and international trade sanctions. Ultimately, King completely abandoned liberal cold war nationalism in favor of an anti-imperialist critique of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Because of the Vietnam War, King denied that American military power was anything other than an instrument of economic imperialism. America could still become a beacon of multiracial democracy, but not as an empire imposing its will on other peoples, and not when it remained riven by class and racial inequalities.
King looked beyond the false choices of self-help, mutual aid, and government economic activism. American Negroes confronted great challenges derived from serious dilemmas, he often said in the 1950s. Southern modernization was eroding white supremacist folkways and opening opportunities to blacks. Competing with whites in a "new age" of widening opportunities, while still afflicted by manifold disadvantages of segregation, the Negro must strive even harder than the white man, he preached. And yet, insisting there was nothing automatic about progress, King increasingly denounced persistent and "murderous" job discrimination all over the nation, which only vigorous government enforcement of fair employment laws could remedy. By the early 1960s many activists—King among them—concluded that "fair employment practices" legislation at the state level had not addressed the group effects of discrimination or the structural roots of mass unemployment affecting all workers, especially low-skilled black workers earning the lowest wages. Should African Americans regard themselves as individuals entitled to equal opportunity, or as members of a group entitled to "special treatment" in compensation for historic and ongoing racism? King's trip to India in 1959 taught him about the Indian government's array of special programs to assist the untouchable caste, and by 1961 he began arguing vigorously for group compensation. By the election of 1964, King transcended both equal opportunity and affirmative action strategies, demanding full employment and family income supports that would benefit all Americans. Public-sector programs to guarantee economic security constituted the fertile soil in which self-help efforts could flourish, he argued, not the sterile ground of permanent dependency. King sought black inclusion in the political economy in alliance with poor whites, but he recognized that the process would transform the architecture of American power and opportunity in fundamental ways.
In the 1950s, King envisioned a synthesis of mass direct action protest and voter registration as powerful alternatives to cumbersome and elitist NAACP legal strategies. SCLC failed to make significant breakthroughs until students forged their own protest movement in 1960, however, after which the whole movement discovered that voter registration and direct action could powerfully work in tandem. But King concluded by 1962 that the dangerous dialectic of black assertion and white repression was irresolvable locally. The South and therefore the nation could only achieve equality through crises that forced the national government to make good on its promises of support for desegregation, and protection for civil liberties and political participation.
One of the movement's greatest challenges stemmed from a dilemma of political and economic disempowerment. Whether confronting southern oligarchies or northern power structures, black activists risked devastating economic reprisals. When politicians and business elites mobilized massive resistance to southern desegregation and voter registration campaigns, thousands of rights activists faced job loss, eviction, coordinated denial of public assistance, and loss of credit and supplies crucial to their farms and businesses. Southern voter education and registration campaigns especially were crucibles where the pursuit of black political rights led activists to confront poverty, dependency, and white economic power. White dominated urban political machines in the North also wielded enormous economic power and used reprisals to suppress independent political challenges. African Americans found ways creatively to wield economic power at the point of consumption through community boycotts. They organized to relieve economic dislocation and achieve economic independence through black-owned businesses and cooperatives. These became essential bases for political assertion. Blacks also fought for rights within white-dominated institutions: they sought equal educational and employment opportunity and equal access to welfare state benefits as a fundamental right and precondition of their political citizenship. Blacks needed economic power and autonomy to protect their movement from devastating reprisals. They also needed political power at every level to secure access to public services and job opportunities, equal protection of the law against violence and reprisals, and effective nondiscriminatory educational and social policies.
Class, gender, and racial inequities had been woven into the decentralized New Deal state, which promised security for everyone but in many ways favored middle-class and working-class white men and their dependents. For example, domestic and agricultural workers—disproportionately women and minorities—fell outside of minimum wage, Social Security, and collective bargaining protections created in the 1930s and 1940s. Blacks faced inordinate discrimination in welfare, the administration of the GI Bill, and the distribution of benefits from federal housing policies. King fought to bring African American workers and the unemployed into the safety net, hoping to cleanse the American welfare state of its racism and provide universal full employment and income security on the model of Scandinavian social democratic states.
The black struggle for power intersected in complex ways with Lyndon Johnson's new War on Poverty, begun in 1964, which promised more power and economic benefits than it could deliver. King supported the efforts of activists to expand the resources and democratize the administration of the poverty war. He wanted blacks to benefit because they were disproportionately poor, and because the disadvantages of discrimination and concentrated poverty affected them most severely. King insisted on attention to race and institutional power in the context of a poverty war Johnson wanted to remain free of racial conflict or costly economic redistribution that the middle class might reject. But King did not want the programs to be publicly perceived as disproportionately benefiting blacks, lest they be attacked as "preferential treatment" or "welfare" for the undeserving. Unfortunately, the War on Poverty was conducted on a scale so limited and so identified with pacifying urban upheaval that this outcome became almost foreordained. King's challenge then became one of reconciling necessarily race-specific programs with full employment and income support policies that would benefit all Americans. The War on Poverty also created new dilemmas by bringing activists off the streets into bureaucracies and separating them from the people King knew must be mobilized politically if any effective war on poverty and racism was not to wither on the vine for lack of constituent support. King's central insight was that the problem of poverty was the problem of power, and that poor people needed to be mobilized politically to realize the nation's promises of economic opportunity and emancipation.
Economic Freedom Movements and King's Pilgrimage to Democratic Socialism
Many traditions of thought and sites of social learning informed King's expanding human rights vision. The theological and social perspectives he absorbed in his youth were foundational (Chapter 1). In the Great Depression, King's father and grandfather were social gospel preachers committed to this-worldly service to the poor and to black people's political enfranchisement. King was influenced by his father's left-New Deal concepts of social and economic rights and his Baptist social mission to "preach the gospel to the poor." By his teens, through experience King had become aware of the "malignant kinship" between poverty and racism. King embraced an egalitarian Christianity critical of both capitalist and communist materialism from his many academic mentors and popular black and white Protestant preachers. His Christian socialism was also clearly influenced by the many books he read during his ten years of higher education. King's own writings reveal he was a committed socialist and Gandhian by 1950. He found ample grounds for opposing the corruptions of wealth and the exploitation of the poor in the Old Testament prophets, the Gospel of Jesus, and in social and religious thinkers and activists such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Mordecai Johnson, and Howard Thurman. For King, Gandhi was not merely a practitioner of nonviolence and anticolonial struggle but an exemplary leader who took a vow of poverty and adopted an untouchable daughter, proclaiming his personal identity with the poor and the importance of equality within the struggle. King also found in the works of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr an evolutionary socialist schema for sanctioning social struggle to redistribute political and economic power.
Paradoxically, the Montgomery bus boycott vaulted King to an unprecedented celebrity and simultaneous identification with poor black folk (Chapter 2). King shed some of his ministerial elitism as he plunged into the daily struggles of thousands of working class people asserting their dignity and coping with the economic warfare that lay at the core of the protest. King's Gandhian and Christian identification with "the least of these" gained substance and commitment as he faced the personal risks of mass leadership. As whites coordinated massive economic retaliation, King grew to appreciate both the economic power of the independent black middle class and the economic resilience of working-class blacks. Increasingly, however, King had to develop viable strategies to counteract economic reprisals which threatened to throw politically active blacks into poverty.
As an emerging national leader in the black freedom movement, King played his many roles skillfully, sharpening a rhetorical repertoire he carried into the 1960s. He preached about nonviolent restraint and constructive self-help to local people and national supporters who were nervous about communism and uncontrolled mass action. Along more radical lines, proclaiming his allegiances to anticolonial struggles, King challenged black religious leaders to forsake materialism and dedicate themselves to moving the masses and challenging capitalism. King's role as chief spokesman and fundraiser for the boycott brought him in touch with trade unionists, especially leaders of the interracial United Packinghouse Workers and A. Philip Randolph, who led the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. They raised King's sights to the potential of a powerful working class alliance against southern white supremacy. After a year of struggle, a dramatic victory over Montgomery's segregated buses inspired King to dream of a regional movement challenging the entire system of segregation and inequality. Blacks had a right to level off the high mountains of privilege and raise up those trapped in dark valleys of oppression, King concluded.
A mass nonviolent movement did not follow the formation of the SCLC in 1957, as massive white resistance repressed efforts to spread direct action and expand the black southern vote (Chapters 3 and 4). As SCLC acting executive director, Ella Baker criticized King's disappointing lack of commitment to direct action and ideals of shared leadership that might make room for women and youth. King's celebrity and role as chief SCLC fundraiser kept him away from local fields of struggle. But fame also brought widening ideological horizons and closer contacts with New York leftists, interracial trade unionists, and a national network of Gandhians committed to pacifist internationalism and left liberalism. During King's two trips to India and Ghana, he discussed political economy with Ghana's president, Kwame Nkrumah, leader and spokesman for the Pan African movement, and India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose nonaligned socialism and advocacy of "atonement" for centuries of untouchability inspired King. King kept his socialism relatively private in a place and time where red baiting and race baiting suppressed movements for basic constitutional rights. But he also openly supported leftist causes in the United States. And King's support for anticolonial struggles included searing indictments of militarism, war, and global economic inequality.
Influenced by his new contacts in the democratic left, King's first book, Stride Toward Freedom, outlined the dream of a Negro labor alliance to overthrow the southern oligarchy and bring social democracy to the nation. King interweaved cultural and structural explanations for black poverty. He would not shy away from group self-criticism in talking about black crime, "illegitimacy," or political apathy. But he repeatedly made clear that all of these "pathologies" constituted social and psychological adaptations to historic and ongoing oppression. A national effort to wipe out poverty, ignorance, and disease, together with political mobilization on the scale experienced in Montgomery, was the only way to eliminate black poverty and "improve the Negro's personal standards" through constructive social action, he wrote.
When dramatic student sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters spread in 1960, King sought to support them and guide them toward wider struggles against segregation and economic injustice. King in turn was radicalized by the students' courage, willingness to fill the jails without posting bail, and commitment to emancipating poor black folk in isolated rural communities. Organizing for southern voting rights also had radical implications. King incorporated into SCLC's programs Septima Clark's Citizenship Education Program, which trained southern activists to teach literacy and promote voter registration. Often coping with local economic reprisals, the voting rights field workers increasingly addressed issues of governance and community life, equal access to welfare and disability benefits, and better housing, jobs, and public services for black communities. In myriad ways, black southerners discovered for themselves the links between civil and political rights and their aspirations for economic citizenship.
After the 1960 election, King shared many black activists' growing disillusionment with Kennedy's cautious liberalism, especially his refusal to fulfill his campaign promise to desegregate federally subsidized housing developments (Chapter 5). Cross-fertilizing southern and northern movements raised the political salience of jobs, housing, police brutality, welfare, anti-unionism in state policy, and racism in conservative trade unions. In the Kennedy years, King analyzed the alliances of public authority, private interests, and racial privilege that lay behind the spreading "second ghettoes." King also called upon the U.S. to imitate the Indian government's policies of "atonement" for the untouchable caste, in order to compensate blacks for their accumulated disadvantages and help them overcome their ongoing oppression. King further strengthened his ties to progressive labor unions, supporting New York's hospital workers in their drive to unionize and A. Philip Randolph's challenge to discrimination within the AFL-CIO. Randolph raised alarms about a looming crisis of mass black unemployment, while National Urban League executive director Whitney Young openly feared that a growing northern urban "underclass" would soon explode in revolt. Socialist Michael Harrington articulated widespread belief among northern activists that poverty derived not only from unemployment and inadequate welfare policies but also from institutional disempowerment in relation to the police, urban renewal authorities, educational bureaucracies, and city hall. King shared all of these concerns. Additionally, in 1962 SCLC inaugurated Operation Breadbasket, its first effort to address the crisis of joblessness that became King's principal preoccupation as he pursued desegregation and voting rights at mid-decade.
Southern voting rights struggles and direct action campaigns raised consciousness about southern poverty and drew King back into contact with masses in motion. In Southwest Georgia, the Albany Movement of 1961-62 radicalized King's public discourse, highlighting his appreciation of how poverty suppressed citizenship and how southern modernization would not benefit African Americans unless they joined with powerful government allies and compelled southern elites to extend equal opportunity. By 1962-63, working class and poor people's issues reoriented what has conventionally been characterized as a movement with "middle-class values and leadership." "What good is a hamburger in a desegregated restaurant if you cannot afford to pay the check?" was widely asked in the movement by 1963. The growing chasm between liberal promise and performance pushed King in a radical direction. How could the movement achieve equal access to public accommodations for blacks and translate those gains into equal opportunity? How could they turn voting rights into shared power? These became the dilemmas of the mid-1960s.
The Birmingham protests and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Chapter 6) illustrate the many intersections between civil and economic rights both locally and nationally. The Birmingham protests began narrowly focused on pressuring downtown merchants to desegregate their stores and hire black clerks. King hoped the "economic power structure" could be forced to lend its support for broader municipal desegregation and employment. Soon, confrontations between nonviolent protesters, brutal police, and "bystanders" escalated into an international media event. King and Fred Shuttlesworth of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) decisively won the desegregation demands but were unable to overcome stronger white resistance to hiring blacks downtown and throughout the city. Nevertheless, as members of the white business establishment hid their faces, the SCLC leaders proclaimed victory in both jobs and desegregation, affirming their coequal importance in the evolving movement.
After Birmingham, King joined A. Philip Randolph in calling for a March on Washington demanding labor market reforms that would address the youth unemployment crisis of the 1960s. Seeking to limit civil disobedience and avert violence that might embarrass the United States, the Kennedy administration and moderate civil rights leaders successfully quashed plans for anything more than a one-day rally. King was not a major force in moderating the march's tactics or goals, and he joined the march's leaders in vigorously pressing the case for economic reforms upon a reluctant Kennedy administration. Kennedy favored desegregation of public spaces, but black leaders and activists insisted on job creation programs in the context of an economy battered by unemployment due to technological advances and five years of sluggish growth. Decent wages, desegregated housing, federal protection for civil rights workers, federal enforcement of nondiscrimination in employment, and guaranteed jobs were at the center of the "dual agenda" by 1963. Between the summer of 1963 and the summer of 1964, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson turned away from a promising opportunity to bring civil rights and economic policy into coordination, to implement employment and wage policies that might have addressed the root causes of a crisis of joblessness that persisted for the rest of the century.
When Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in January 1964, King had developed a sophisticated indictment of economic racism (Chapter 7). The spring protests in St. Augustine, Florida, confirmed that desegregation would not emancipate most black people from poverty or dependency on white employers. The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty in the summer, coupled with a looming white backlash, caused King and his associates to broaden their attack on economic racism to accommodate the needs and fears of the white poor. They advanced proposals going far beyond "special treatment" for Negroes or simple job training and education for the unskilled and the jobless. For the first time King advocated a guaranteed annual income and speculated that a real war on poverty might require mobilizing an interracial movement of the poor, a coalition much broader and more radical than the liberal-religious-labor-civil rights coalition the 1963 March on Washington had pulled together.
From 1964 on, King confronted urban rioting, an accelerating white backlash, rising black nationalism within the movement, and the contradictions of cold war liberalism itself. Nowhere were these contradictions more evident than in black people's struggles for power and purpose in the War on Poverty, which King insisted must marshal adequate resources, fight racism, and democratically enfranchise poor citizens in local governance. King's support for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that summer brought to the fore his criticism of the ostensibly color-blind but deeply racist conservative politics of opposition to welfare, crime, and government activism. King responded to race riots in Harlem and Rochester, New York, by blaming socioeconomic deprivations and proposing employment and housing programs to address the needs of urban blacks. Locally, King recognized that police brutality and urban institutional "powerlessness" contributed to the violence. But it would be two years before he would fully and openly incorporate police brutality and political poverty into his explanations of the urban revolts. After accepting his Nobel Prize in Norway, King began pointing to Scandinavian democratic socialist states as models for what the United States could achieve in fighting poverty and slums.
King struggled to translate black voting into shared power in the South, as he imagined direct action protests in the urban North against the racial ghettos (Chapter 8). His rhetorical commitment to the dream of an interracial Negro labor alliance never became a priority for action, principally because he became preoccupied with the mounting urban crisis, the failings of the War on Poverty, and the diversion of national resources to war in Southeast Asia. White economic reprisals actually accelerated in the wake of the Selma protests and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, underscoring for King the need for simultaneous political and economic empowerment. SCLC helped local southern activists in their struggles to win a measure of control over antipoverty programs and resources, which to a degree promoted literacy, education, and the organization of small black producers' cooperatives. By and large, however, the War on Poverty disillusioned those who hoped federal money would support political and economic emancipation. King fruitlessly tried to intervene in a bitter dispute in Los Angeles between city hall and neighborhood groups seeking representation in the poverty program. Weeks later, blacks in Watts came into violent conflict with police, and King returned to the smoldering city to mediate its divisions and challenge Mayor Sam Yorty, President Johnson, and the nation to meet the crisis of urban violence with genuine democracy and economic opportunity.
The limited scope, elite control, and paternalism of many local wars on poverty stimulated black militancy, as did the rapid shift in funding and policy priorities to the Vietnam War in 1965 (Chapter 9). King was not centrally involved in the controversy over the Moynihan Report on the Negro family or the White House conferences of 1965 and 1966. But he criticized Lyndon Johnson's apparent abandonment of his vaunted promises of African American "equality as a fact and a result." King disagreed with the paternalistic assumptions behind Moynihan's policy perspectives and the War on Poverty itself. Again he acknowledged that "pathology" and self-destructive behavior afflicted black poor people. But he insisted that ongoing racial exclusion and class exploitation in the modern metropolis principally accounted for these problems. A grassroots democratic movement for urban renewal involving poor people as partners rather than clients of government would be the key to reconstructing the urban ghettos and giving poor people a sense of optimism and constructive purpose, King and many others argued.
By 1966, King was a relentless critic of the broken promises of the War on Poverty, as he increasingly sought to integrate local mobilization and national policy reform. King had explicitly rejected metaphors describing poverty as a cycle or culture in which parents purportedly transferred deviant norms to their children from generation to generation. Now he insisted that poverty was a structural pillar sustaining low-wage urban labor markets and that poverty derived from changing but relentless forms of oppression imposed upon poor people, generation after generation.
In his most thorough set of policy recommendations before Congress in late 1966, King advocated guaranteed work for the unemployed, a raise in the minimum wage for the working poor, and a federally guaranteed minimum income for those outside of the labor market. A society built on abundance could no longer distribute its rewards only on the basis of traditional forms of work. Service, self-fulfillment, and citizenship were public goods worthy of remuneration, King argued. To break down ghetto walls, King called for a long-range program of urban desegregation and open housing that could integrate the metropolis across wide racial and class lines. Over the short term, he called for more resources to strengthen core institutions in the ghetto: schools, housing, and community centers offering recreation and health services. To remedy black powerlessness, King called for a shift in power from bureaucracies and city halls to more responsive neighborhood agencies in accordance with federal promises of "participation" for the poor in planning their own war on poverty. King called for voter registration drives and legal recognition for tenant and welfare unions. His policy alternatives synthesized an array of critiques on the democratic left.
King's radicalization accelerated as Mayor Richard Daley's control over the War on Poverty in Chicago helped thwart political mobilization in 1966 (Chapter 10). His experience in the Chicago Freedom Movement provided King with a new analysis of urban political economy. From the "color tax" that black renters paid absentee landlords in segregated housing markets, to the coercive control exercised by local welfare caseworkers and police, to the high ghetto walls erected by suburban realtors, banks, and white homeowners, King analyzed the architecture of what he called the ghetto "prison." He promised to dismantle "domestic colonialism" and end "slum exploitation." Initially putting resources and organizational talent into neighborhood and tenant unions, SCLC found in the summer of 1966 an issue, housing discrimination, around which to stage dramatic confrontations in working-class white suburban neighborhoods. The limits of the resulting agreement with Mayor Daley and the real estate industry led King to explore a range of possibilities for local economic development and political empowerment: welfare and tenant unions, community organization, voter registration, neighborhood adult literacy programs, and Operation Breadbasket, which coordinated community boycotts to pressure employers to hire disadvantaged workers. The limitations of these strategies and the failure of black power proponents to develop economic programs on a scale adequate to the challenges of concentrated urban poverty led King and his circle of advisors back to the drawing board. Congressional legislation mandating open housing had failed in 1966, but again King looked to the federal government to develop policies that might resolve the dilemmas of unequal metropolitan space and power by pouring federal resources into democratically directed urban reconstruction, designed to provide decent housing and create millions of jobs for dislocated workers. How to tap into the largest resources of white class power without provoking massive white resistance remained King's most difficult dilemma.
King struggled to find nonviolent alternatives to the ghetto uprisings that convulsed the nation between 1964 and 1968. When Chicago police clashed with black youth in 1966 and Newark and Detroit were aflame in 1967, King now described them as revolts not just against socioeconomic "conditions" but against "powerlessness," joblessness, police brutality, and institutional racism (among other factors). "Powerlessness" he conceived not as a psychological state, as did many liberals and social scientists, but as a relational condition of unjust disempowerment. Nonviolent grassroots struggles and violent rebellions profoundly shaped King's emergent understanding of political poverty.
King made the lonely Gandhian decision to oppose the war in Vietnam in light of its corrosive effect on civil liberties, the War on Poverty, and the left-liberal coalition (Chapter 11). By the spring of 1967 King dramatically advanced a radical critique of U.S. economic imperialism, transposing the terms of his earlier critiques of British imperialism. King's most radical public statements indicted the U.S. government for using military force to secure multinational corporate interests in foreign markets. More frequently, King denounced the deadly U.S. air and ground war, questioning President Johnson's self appointed roles as world policeman and democratic redeemer of a country he failed to understand. The convergence of domestic and international crises underscored for King the importance of racial justice and economic redistribution in America and around the world. The developing world needed a new Marshall Plan, and to outgrow its nationalism and economic individualism United States needed to undergo a "revolution of values."
By the summer of 1967, with the lethal cycle of urban violence and white backlash propelling Congress and the administration rightward, King decided that the way to end the Vietnam War and revive the war on poverty was to amass a coalition of poor people capable of escalating civil disobedience to the point of dislocating the functioning of a city (Chapter 12). With his sights set on Washington, D.C., King attempted to forge this new, bottom-up, multiracial coalition of the jobless, the working poor, and welfare-reliant women. From women's welfare rights activism, King had recently learned a great deal about gender inequities in the welfare state. Poor people from urban ghettos, the Mississippi Delta, and Appalachia—African Americans, European Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos—would all join this crusade. King's detour to Memphis in March 1968 was meant in part to dramatize the plight of the working poor and the importance of unionism to the interracial struggle for economic justice. He died supporting sanitation workers on strike against the city, supported by a remarkable community-trade union alliance for economic justice.
As evidenced by the demands of his final campaign, the Poor People's March on Washington, King confronted governmental power more than corporate control of the means of production. Selectively reading opinion polls, King overestimated the strength of liberalism and underestimated the power of resurgent conservatism. His solutions usually looked to the federal treasury and to an expanded public sector to reconstruct the metropolis and guarantee jobs and income. King was sure that the government had acted to privilege the middle class and white suburbanites at the expense of minorities and the poor. A publicized march to the center of America's civic culture, the Lincoln Memorial, might nonviolently mobilize the poor, pressure Congress, and awaken the conscience of the individualistic and racially innocent suburban middle class. King died believing in the possibility of democratizing the state and the economy through "a bottom up coalition," exposing himself to what seemed like an inevitable assassin's bullet in the service of that dream.
After King's death, the egalitarian nonviolent dream he shared with many on the democratic left impelled the organizers of the Poor People's March forward. "Resurrection City," the shantytown they built on the Washington Mall, sank in a sea of mud and bad publicity. The campaign lost the focus on dramatic militant civil disobedience that King envisioned. But the appeals and actions of multiracial activists testified to years of social learning in the struggle. King was part of a much broader movement, participating in and contributing to a tradition of thinking about race and poverty that outlived him. Despite efforts to canonize King and consign pieces of him to elaborate political reliquaries, fuller and more accurate pictures of his mature radicalism survived, especially among grassroots organizations working for international justice, peace, minority rights, union rights, and the empowerment of poor communities.
Martin Luther King confronted but never resolved tensions between Gandhian symbolism, political power, and his own humanity. King colluded in his own construction as the American Gandhi by the celebrity culture, but he could not control the inevitable contradictions between his private and public selves, between his self-awareness as a flawed human being and his outsized mythic persona. Called to leadership by the masses, almost as an accident of history, repeatedly affirming that he must reflect popular militancy or be cast aside, King was also expected by whites to guide the masses with near unlimited charismatic power. He often confessed to a sense that he did not deserve his honors, and lived most of his life with relentless defamations and harassment from people no less powerful than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. On tape and film, the fearless voice often could not hide the anguished face. Accepting responsibilities far beyond anyone's capacities, knowing full well celebrity was not power, he counted on the enduring power and resilience of his charismatic leadership. Showered with tributes, relentlessly accused of corruption, he accepted his honors and defended his integrity and humility. Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 on behalf of the movement and donating all of the $54,000 prize money to civil rights organizations, he caught hell at home for neglecting his children's educational needs. "I am conscious of two Martin Luther Kings," he once told his mentor Rev. J. Pious Barbour. "The Martin Luther King that the people talk about seems to me somebody foreign to me." Pulled in every direction by his advisors with little time to reflect, King suffered from relentless and intensifying vilification by reactionary whites and a growing judgment among militant blacks that he was both grandiose and irrelevant. But in opinion polls he was always black people's favorite leader, with 88 percent approval ratings in 1963 and 1966. He could joke in 1957 about how long he would be expected to pull rabbits out of his hat. By 1967, nonviolent miracles became imperative, as urban violence fueled reactionary and repressive political forces. By all accounts, it was a miracle in the last year of his life that he could sustain his sharply dissident voice between bouts of almost incapacitating depression. But he had strong spiritual medicine: his ancestors had overcome shattered dreams by struggling together and clinging to hope.