A few years before his tragic death in 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. famously had a change of heart about the proper cure for persistent black poverty. He began to look increasingly to big government to help poor blacks, even though throughout his life he’d been an advocate—indeed a preacher—of the virtues of self-help. It was a change of worldview that was dead wrong, however understandable it might have been as a response to the grim reality then unfolding among America’s inner-city blacks. It was a mistake that had terrible consequences for black America and for the nation as a whole.

King believed in self-help because he grew up in a deeply religious environment that nourished it. Southern black church leaders like King’s father and maternal grandfather, both of whom preceded him as Baptist ministers, tended to stress the economic, educational, and moral self-improvement of the black community. Encouraging such striving, they felt, was the best way for poor blacks to escape poverty and integrate themselves fully into American social and political life. These were the goals that King’s forebears—and King himself—correctly sought.

King’s father, Martin Luther Sr. (or “Daddy” King), personally exemplified this classically American spirit of self-improvement. Son of an impoverished sharecropper, Daddy King relied on a muscular work ethic, spartan self-discipline, and a devotion to education to propel himself into the black middle class. As a teenager, to help his parents, he’d work double shifts firing engines in rail yards. Later, he worked an array of jobs, from making auto tires to driving trucks—anything to get ahead. “As far as earning myself some money was concerned,” he later wrote, “I wasn’t worried because I’d never been afraid of hard work.” Thriftiness enabled Daddy King to save enough money to pay for evening classes at Bryant Preparatory School in Atlanta. He started in 1920, at age 20, at a fifth-grade level, and graduated in five years, going on to Morehouse College, where he obtained a theology degree in 1930.

Daddy King instilled in his children the self-help ethos that brought him success. “[C]ompared to the modern home environment,” he recalled, “we ran a very tight ship.” “The children got to school on time every morning; they did homework as soon as they reached home in the afternoon, then chores. After supper, they did some studying, then we had prayers.” He took pride, too, that his family had “never lived in a rented house” or “ridden too long in a car on which payment was due.” Reminiscing about his boyhood, Martin Luther Jr. remarked that though his father “never made more than an ordinary salary,” he knew “the art of saving and budgeting. He always had sense enough not to live beyond his means.”

Guided by his father’s example, King celebrated self-help as central to the project to integrate blacks from the moment he became a public figure, and he continued to celebrate it through much of his career, though in a considerably muted way after his turn to big government. In its concrete details, King’s message of personal responsibility and individual and communal striving offers a time-tested recipe for getting ahead, as the success of countless immigrants, including African and West Indian blacks, proves beyond doubt.

The message centers on the work ethic. King rejected the common liberal view that jobs requiring minimal or no skills (those most likely to be available to the poor) were “dead end” jobs and therefore not worth taking. “Whatever your life’s work is, do it well,” he advised. “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music.” King stuck with this stance despite criticism from trusted advisors like Bayard Rustin, who held that “to want a Cadillac is not un-American; to push a cart in the garment center is.”

Black workers should hold themselves to universal standards of excellence, King strongly believed. In a 1957 address to the Montgomery Improvement Association (a forerunner of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), he told his black audience to “set out to do a good job,” not “a good Negro job.” Three years later, he was even more adamant: “We must seek to do our life’s work so well that nobody could do it better. The Negro who seeks to be merely a good Negro, whatever he is, has already flunked his matriculation examination for entrance into the university of integration.” Even the later King touted this line. “[W]e must work assiduously to aspire to excellence,” he proclaimed in 1967. 

For King, the ideal of hard work, meeting high universal standards, had to be central to the education of young blacks. Anything less, he correctly reasoned, would trap them in second-class status. King would despise a multi-culti educational fad like Ebonics (“black English”), designed to make poorly educated black kids feel good without challenging them. He excoriated schoolteachers “who can’t even speak the English language” and wouldn’t know a verb “if it was as big as that table.” “For a college graduate to be standing up talking about ‘you is,’” he charged, “there is no excuse for it.” He added angrily: “And some of these people are teaching our children and crippling our children.”

Thrift was a second key virtue that King thought could help blacks propel themselves into the American mainstream. In his 1957 talk, he urged his listeners: “Let’s live within our means. Save our money and invest it in meaningful ends.” Blacks shouldn’t spend more than they could afford on houses and cars, he counseled, and they should especially “stop wasting money on frivolities,” such as “all these alcoholic beverages.” “It would be one of the tragedies of this century,” he maintained, “if it is revealed that the Negroes spent more money for frivolities than we spent for the cause of freedom and justice and for meaningful ends.” Here, too, King persisted in his views even after his big-government turn. In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, he called for “the development of habits of thrift and techniques of wise investment,” so that “the Negro will be doing his share to grapple with his problem of economic deprivation.”

King practiced what he preached, as was clear when he went on trial in Alabama for tax evasion in 1960. To virtually everyone’s amazement, an all-white southern jury found him not guilty, largely because he kept a diary carefully detailing his speaking fees and travel expenses. King’s record keeping, explains historian Taylor Branch, was “a habit drilled into him from childhood by Daddy King, who taught that keeping a penny-conscious budget was the first rule of frugality.”

Joining work and thrift in King’s self-help vision was a no-nonsense stance toward black crime and disorderly behavior. If blacks were to integrate themselves into America, King felt, black crime rates had to fall. “Let’s be honest with ourselves and say that . . . our standards have lagged behind at many points,” he declared in 1957. “Negroes constitute ten percent of the population of New York City, and yet they commit thirty-five percent of the crime,” he observed.

A decade later, with America’s black ghettos becoming so dangerous that a child born and raised in one had worse chances of survival than a U.S. soldier in World War II, King called for a moral renewal in the black community that might bring the chaos under control. “We can begin a constructive program which will vigorously seek to improve our personal standards,” he said. “It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of high maturity, to rise to the level of self-criticism,” King declared. “Through group unity we must convey to one another that our women must be respected, and that life is too precious to be destroyed in a Saturday night brawl, or a gang execution.”

For King, what today we call “faith-based institutions” would be indispensable in this project of moral uplift—after all, he was a clergyman, who understood the traditional moral authority of the black churches. “Through community agencies and religious institutions, we must develop a positive program through which Negro youth can become adjusted to urban living and improve their general level of behavior.”

A fourth part of King’s self-help message was his stress on the fundamental importance of the traditional family. However helpful hard work, thrift, and law-abiding behavior might be to future black success, King felt, the breakdown of the black family, the institution that most nurtured the strength of character that is the key to self-help, threatened to undermine any gains blacks made. “[N]othing is so much needed,” King wrote in 1967, “as a secure family life for a people seeking to rise out of poverty and backwardness.” King himself wasn’t that much of a success as a family man; we know both from FBI wiretaps and from the testimony of friends and associates about his compulsive philandering. But if he didn’t walk the correct walk, he talked the right talk, from early on. “[W]e have eight times more illegitimacy than white persons,” a troubled King reminded black listeners as far back as the late 1950s. And blacks “must work to improve these standards,” he insisted.

Late in his career, King offered a powerfully plausible analysis of the forces conspiring to weaken the black family. Slavery was partly to blame, he argued, beginning “with the break-up of families on the coasts of Africa” and continuing on the plantation, “where the institution of legal marriage for slaves did not exist.” These “shattering blows,” King argued, made the black family “fragile, deprived and often psychopathic.” Intensifying slavery’s evil effects were potent anti-family forces at work in American culture as a whole during the permissive 1960s. “History continues to mock the Negro today, because just as he needs ever greater family integrity, severe strains are assailing family life in the white community,” King wrote. “In short, the larger society is not at this time a constructive educational force for the Negro.”

King’s fears over black family breakdown even led him to become one of the few civil rights leaders not to reject outright Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial 1965 report, The Negro Family, which warned about the rising illegitimacy rate among blacks (at the time 25 percent, well below today’s rate). In fact, without mentioning the report directly, King sympathetically discussed its contents in a talk shortly after its publication, saying that family collapse threatened the “very survival” of American blacks. He dismissed the views of “a good many writers who have tartly denigrated the role of the family.”

King’s belief in the virtues of self-help made him critical of welfare. To begin with, he didn’t like the way it then operated. The system came laden with perverse incentives, King complained in the mid-sixties. Consider the regulations that “deprive a family of Aid to Dependent Children if a male resides in the house,” he suggested. Don’t such rules entice a man “to abandon his family” so that he is in effect “coerced into irresponsibility”? Welfare regulations, by placing stringent limits on the assets a recipient could possess, also sapped the work ethic vital to self-help. “If you receive public aid in Chicago, you cannot own property, not even an automobile, so you are condemned to the jobs . . . closest to your home,” King insisted. A smart welfare system would shore up two-parent families and back the efforts of recipients to find work—basically the goals welfare reformers have pursued over the last decade.

But further, King’s dislike of specific welfare rules extended to wider misgivings about welfare itself. He was aware of the growing problem of welfare dependency among blacks. He pointed out in 1957 that, in St. Louis, “the Negroes constitute twenty-six percent of the population, and yet seventy-six percent of the persons on the list for [A]id to [D]ependent [C]hildren are Negroes.” Several years later, he regretted that “56 percent of Negro children at some point in their lives have been recipients of public aid.”

But if King fretted over dependency, he never gave a full-bore criticism of the welfare system. Never did he echo Franklin D. Roosevelt’s argument that government handouts are a potential “narcotic” that can result in “moral disintegration,” robbing welfare clients of their “self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.”

Such a criticism would have been increasingly unlikely after 1965. From then on, King started to downplay his self-help message and began to propose instead a massive swelling of government programs as the best solution to black poverty.

Why did King change his approach? One reason was growing pessimism that a capitalist economy could still provide the kind of low-skill jobs that Daddy King had relied on to work his way up. In a posthumous publication, King contended—quite mistakenly, we can see in hindsight—that the U.S. economy “began to take a turn for the worse” after 1964, largely because “automation began to cut into our jobs very badly, and this snuffed out the few sparks of hope the black people had begun to nurture.” In 1965, he asserted: “[T]housands of jobs a week are disappearing in the wake of automation and other production efficiency techniques.” Without jobs, a self-help ethos clearly wasn’t sufficient.

A deeper reason for the change in worldview, however, may be that, as King went north and saw up close the emergence of the black underclass, he simply lost heart. Blacks in northern cities like Chicago, where he and his entourage started working in 1965, were far more demoralized and dysfunctional than southern blacks, King discovered. The moral influence of the black church was much weaker than in the South. Illegitimacy, welfare dependency, and criminality were more prevalent than in the South, with its much stronger bourgeois values. No longer, explains historian Christopher Lasch, did King address “a constituency that cared to hear about self-help, the dignity of labor, the importance of strong families.” King’s associate Hosea Williams put it bluntly: “We’re used to working [in the South] with people who want to be freed.”

Shortly before his assassination, King even began to speak of a black “underclass”—“an underclass that is not a working class.” In King’s view, those who belonged to this group, “alienated from the routines of work,” lacked the “habits of discipline” that enable someone to succeed in the workplace. How could self-help be the road to success for people who seemed bent on destroying themselves?

The only answer the later King could see to these economic and social problems was for government to step in and make things better. “[T]he ultimate way to diminish our problems of crime, family disorganization, illegitimacy and so forth will have to be found through a government program to help the frustrated Negro male find his true masculinity by placing him on his own two economic feet,” King argued—implying, in a quasi-Marxist vein, that the purported failures of the capitalist economy had caused the pathologies of the black underclass. King scorned Lyndon Johnson’s multi-billion-dollar War on Poverty because it didn’t spend enough. The president’s “so-called poverty program,” King scoffed, was “not even a good skirmish against poverty.” Though he still encouraged self-help from time to time, King now openly rejected it too. “When [the Negro] seeks opportunity, he is told, in effect, to lift himself up by his own bootstraps, advice which does not take into account the fact that he is barefoot.” What blacks really needed, the new King claimed, were government-provided jobs for those who wanted to work and a guaranteed income for all, regardless of whether they worked or not.

This later King was a dispiriting sight compared with the inspiring figure behind the early civil rights movement. Not only had King seemingly lost faith in self-help. In addition, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan attested, he no longer was willing to defend his early integrationist ideals when they came under attack. In 1968, Moynihan attended a meeting with King and other black leaders devoted to The Negro Family. “The leadership of the meeting was in the hands of near demented Black militants who consistently stated one untruth after another,” he recalled. King sat there throughout, Moynihan lamented, “unwilling . . . to say a word in support of non-violence, integration, or peaceableness.”

King’s new worldview got things exactly—tragically—wrong. No expensive and unwieldy government jobs program such as the later King desired, for example, could have matched the millions of new high- and low-skill jobs created by the U.S. economy over the past two decades—a market dynamism ignited by the very “production efficiency techniques” that King saw as a big problem.

King’s radical proposal of a guaranteed income for all was as misguided as his call for a gigantic government jobs program. True, when he embraced the idea during the late sixties, he had some company. Both Nobel economist Milton Friedman and President Richard Nixon backed some version of a guaranteed income program. But we now know empirically from the Office of Economic Opportunity’s ten-year Negative Income Tax experiment (conducted from 1968 to 1978, primarily in Denver and Seattle) that such subsidies significantly weaken the work ethic. The experiment found, too, that income guarantees correlate with family dissolution. Not surprisingly, support for the idea has dried up. If the nation had ever implemented this grand plan of King’s, it would have discouraged the very behavior—finding and keeping work, and getting and staying married—that we know, and King once knew, actually does reduce poverty.

But of course, in a broader sense, the nation did pursue the later King’s big-government approach for 35 years, with little but failure to show for it. Even as U.S. firms vigorously churned out jobs and integrated millions of low-skill immigrants into the mainstream economy, the nation spent more than $5 trillion on anti-poverty programs, only to see the condition of poor blacks worsen. If that weren’t enough to discredit King’s late views, the success of welfare reform should clinch the case. The experience over the last five years or so of thousands upon thousands of former welfare mothers joining the workforce and finding that they could support their families and build better lives shows that King was too pessimistic about the capacity of many in the underclass to help themselves if given enough encouragement—and a push.

King’s earlier self-help strategy was the right one. Who knows what might have happened if King had stayed with it—and lived?

Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images


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