University of South Florida

College of The Arts

University of South Florida

Forbes: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Overlooked Crusade And ‘Poor People’s Art’

When America remembers Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy on the federal holiday honoring him January 16, 2023, much will be made–rightly so–of his work dragging the nation kicking and screaming toward a place of greater racial equality. Largely ignored–as usual–will be his efforts seeking to uplift the poor and narrow the nation’s class divide. A divide it could be argued is even greater today than in King’s time.

When King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, he was there supporting striking sanitation workers. Garbage men. Poor people.

King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963 at the March on Washington, which included this line: “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

The formal name for that monumental gathering was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Jobs. Poor people. The event was initially conceived by a labor organizer. As much as it’s aims were greater freedom, liberty and justice for minorities, they were also improved housing, fair labor standards and a national minimum wage for all people–for poor people–as spelled out in the organizer’s “10 Demands.”

Surprisingly, it was not racial equality which consumed King’s time in the months before his death, it was class equality and his Poor People’s Campaign seeking jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children.

“The Poor People’s Campaign was seen by King as the next chapter in the struggle for genuine equality. Desegregation and the right to vote were essential, but King believed that African Americans and other minorities would never enter full citizenship until they had economic security,” according to the King Institute at Stanford University. After his success in bringing ongoing racial discrimination to light in America, he next hoped to focus the nation’s attention on economic inequality and poverty.

His life was taken before he could see that effort through, an effort of his now mostly forgotten, an effort continuing today. Prominent among contemporary efforts linking America’s yawning class divide with the nation’s moral imperative to support “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is Reverend William Barber II’s and Reverend Liz Theoharis’ Poor People’s Campaign which carries on King’s vision of the interconnectedness of voting rights and equality with wages, housing, education and health care.

Calling attention to King’s overlooked legacy as an advocate for the poor and ongoing efforts to achieve economic justice in the United States are artists included in the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum’s exhibition “Poor People’s Art: A (Short) Visual History of Poverty in the United States” (January 13–March 4, 2023). Conceived in a declared opposition to poverty, racism, militarism, environmental destruction, health inequities, and other interlocking injustices, “Poor People’s Art” shows how artists in the U.S. have visualized poverty and its effects since 1968.

View or listen to the full article on, by Chadd Scott.

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