So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.((Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” (speech, Riverside Church, New York, NY, April 4, 1967).))

In describing the war in Vietnam as a “cruel manipulation of the poor,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. identified the base of the strategy of the ruling class, in all matters foreign and domestic. From the perspective of the class who owns and controls the vast majority of the wealth of the United States, no further strategy is possible without first dividing and conquering those at the bottom in order to control all sections of society. So long as the poor can be kept disorganized, they will always be easily manipulated. At the heart of the twisted genius of this cruel manipulation is how the ruling class can oppress and exploit unevenly, using that difference to their ultimate advantage.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gives his ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967.

When King used these words — “cruel manipulation of the poor” —  as one of the principal reasons for his publicly opposing the war in Vietnam, he spoke within the context of a larger analysis at a particular moment in history.((Data from Vietnam Embassy website.)) In 1967, the year when Dr. King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church, the U.S. troop levels in Vietnam were approaching a half million, reaching their highwater mark by the next year.  When it was all said and done, 58,220 U.S. personnel were dead or missing. In terms of the Vietnamese people, casualties were as many as 2 million civilians on both sides and some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. Death in the course of a war is an important measure, but it doesn’t begin to describe the brutal reality during the conflict and in its aftermath. The United States, the richest, most militarily advanced nation in the world was conducting a disastrous and unjust war in Vietnam, a poor nation largely populated by peasant communities half a world away. It was in this context that Dr. King was joining his voice to a growing movement to end the war.
In 1965, one courageous young black worker in Detroit, General Gordon Baker, Jr. delivered a letter to his local induction center. He concluded his letter with this statement:

THEREFORE: when the call is made to free South Africa; when the call is made to liberate Latin America from the United Fruit Co., Kaiser and Alcoa Aluminum Co., and from Standard Oil; when the call is made to jail the exploiting Brahmins in India in order to destroy the Caste System; when the call is made to free the black delta areas of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina; when the call is made to free Harlem, New York, to free 12th Street here in Detroit and all the other 12th streets around the country… Yes, when these calls are made, send for me, for these shall be historic struggles in which it shall be an everlasting honor and pleasure for me to serve.((“Letter to Local Draft Board” by General Gordon Baker, Jr.))

Muhammad Ali’s draft resistance took place roughly around the same time Dr. King came out publicly against the war. A year before King’s speech, Ali made his views clear:

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America…And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father…Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.((“Muhammad Ali and Vietnam” by Krishnadev Calamur, The Atlantic, June 4, 2016.))

What is so striking about Baker and Ali’s quotes is their international consciousness. Baker from Detroit and Ali from Louisville were refusing the cruel manipulation. The consciousness of the times spoke in language of national liberation and self-determination for oppressed peoples, and their answer transcended the borders of the United States of America. Baker identified specific corporations exploiting Latin America and South America. Ali talked in terms of solidarity with “poor, hungry people” in Vietnam. These examples show an understanding of the class aspect of these struggles and the sophisticated, critical functioning of racism within the framework of capitalist imperialism.
In fact, King’s analysis in “Beyond Vietnam” often echoed Baker’s and Ali’s international consciousness. For instance, King stated:

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

It is in this spirit of internationalism that we should study “Beyond Vietnam” as a whole, and this concept of the “cruel manipulation of the poor” in particular. In that spirit, we should resist all forms of American Exceptionalism, including an exceptionalism embraced by some in our own ranks that dismisses the true scale of poverty and dispossession inside the borders of the United States.

From this vantage point, let’s take a strategic view of the movement of the poor and dispossessed inside the United States — in King’s time and in ours. In this one phrase, the “cruel manipulation of the poor,” King was putting his finger on an essential truth about how U.S. society operates. King was illuminating the role the state plays in this oppression whether in the form of militarism abroad or in the violent power of the police, prisons and other institutions that serve to criminalize, punish, and control the masses of poor people at home. 

Looking closer at this “cruel manipulation,” we should ask who is doing the manipulating and for whose benefit is the manipulation carried out? This cruel manipulation is not some metaphysical force of fate operating outside of history or something that just happens due to some abstract truth about human nature. It does not just result from some eternal presence of an unchanging and transhistorical sin of white supremacy. White supremacy was invented in a historically specific context, has evolved across U.S. history to maintain itself, and has always served to divide the poor. Similarly, it’s not enough to just talk about greedy capitalists in general as if human nature foreordains that we will always have inequality and selfishness. The “cruel manipulation of the poor” points to the strategy employed time and again, in different historical contexts, for those who hold power and wealth to maintain it.

“The “cruel manipulation of the poor” points to the strategy employed time and again, in different historical contexts, for those who hold power and wealth to maintain it.”

Furthermore, as Barbara Fields points out, once it is set loose, white supremacy has a life of its own. At the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, King made clear his understanding of how white supremacy functioned especially in the context of the South when he stated: “the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.” He lifted up the history of the rise and defeat of Reconstruction and the Populist Movement.  In“Beyond Vietnam” King takes this further, pointing to the relationship between the poor across colorlines and their relationship to the State (the U.S. government), which is in turn controlled by and serves the interests of a ruling class.

In the context of the war in Vietnam, the U.S. government compelled young men, disproportionately from the ranks of the poor, to the frontlines to kill and die. King stated, “America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” This assessment continues to be true today.  The policy of destructive and costly wars has a direct relationship to the defunding of vital programs in housing, education, healthcare, and so on. However, this is not only a question of misguided distribution of resources or bad budgetary priorities or misdirected policies. It is a war on the poor on a global scale. The ruling class uses the state to wage war on the poor at home and abroad.

In the context of the war in Vietnam, the U.S. government compelled young men, disproportionately from the ranks of the poor, to the frontlines to kill and die.

To say that the war in Vietnam — and in a larger sense, all US policies of war — is the enemy of the poor, points directly to the class character of war. King was drawing focus towards the division of the poor inside the United States and the division of the poor globally, exemplified clearly in the situation in Vietnam.  While, over the years, a good number of progressive voices have celebrated “Beyond Vietnam,” too often they obscure the class character of King’s insights. In “Beyond Vietnam,” King spoke out against U.S. foreign policy from the position that it was “a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.” Wall Street, representing big capital, ultimately benefits the most from war, systemic racial oppression, and an economic system that produces billionaires and beggars.

The “giant triplets” of racism, war, and poverty are a frequent focus in King’s last years, but he maps their relationship out clearly in “Beyond Vietnam.” The “cruel manipulation of the poor” is how these triple evils are maintained. It is a strategy of social control. It matters a great deal who we understand benefits from this manipulation. Long before Vietnam, war had served the interest of the rich. Long after Vietnam, it continues to serve them. Today we are living in the midst of the longest running war in United States’ history, when roughly three quarters of a trillion dollars goes towards military spending, and private contractors make record profits. The task before King and the movement in 1967 was to get clear on who and what they were up against, not in a vague, general sense, but in a particular and definite sense. That is our task today.

A little more than fifty years after King delivered this speech, we face a similar fundamental set of conditions. Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis pointed out, “We have the abundance and the technology to solve many of society’s problems — but it will take a focus on people over profits and a political will to end poverty, racism, militarism, ecological devastation and the distorted moral narrative that ties all of these systems together.” If we have any hope in prevailing over these interlocking evils, we must recognize that they are maintained by the cruel manipulation of the poor today. The disunity and disorganization of those of us on the bottom renders the whole society at the mercy of the rich and powerful. The middle strata, even as they face crisis, continue to follow the lead of the ruling class. The poor and dispossessed catch hell at every turn. That condition of “catching hell” places them in a very important and potentially revolutionary position.

“If we have any hope in prevailing over these interlocking evils, we must recognize that they are maintained by the cruel manipulation of the poor today.”

To the leaders emerging in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, it is worth reflecting on the half century that connects to Dr. King and the unsung saints of the original Poor People’s Campaign. Over the past several decades, many of us involved in today’s campaign have collectively studied and applied the lessons from the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. The economic and political changes over this past half century — an all-encompassing, global transformation — including the technological revolution through which we are passing, makes the poor and dispossessed today different from the poor and dispossessed of fifty years ago. These changes have created the permanently unemployed, the masses of people without housing, the explosion in incarceration, the frontlines facing the ravages of climate change, the victims of an insane healthcare system, and the list goes on.  

We can trace the path stretching from King standing at the pulpit of Riverside in 1967 to our place and time. Along this path, we should mark an event roughly in the middle. In July 1989, 450 people from 33 states gathered in Philadelphia for the National Survival Summit. This multi-racial delegation of poor people was convened by the National Union of the Homeless, the National Welfare Rights Union, and the National Anti-Hunger Coalition. Among those in attendance was Albert Turner, a lieutenant of Dr. King from the Black Belt of Alabama. Turner was a veteran of Bloody Sunday in Selma, 1965. He organized the Alabama delegation to the Poor People’s Campaign, and served as a pallbearer at Dr. King’s funeral. Twenty years after those times, Turner told the gathering in Philadelphia:

I do feel that we are an expendable class of people at this time. The government has no need for poor people anymore, and they are not on the agenda. The poor must realize that they are in a majority in this nation, and that a small minority of people is dictating all policies.  We must realize that we are strong if we unite. We aren’t asking anyone to give their identity up, but we must come together as an entity to survive. As long as each group stands alone we will be destroyed one by one, and the mighty and the powerful rich will continue to enjoy the wealth of this nation. There’s enough for all of us, but we must unite together to get it.

Calling himself a “Root Doctor,” he used the metaphor of a tree and its roots:

There’s a reason for all of us having the problems we’ve got — even though they are individual problems — but there’s a reason.  And the reason is the roots. As long as you let this system to operate like it operates, we always will have problems. We’ve got to go to the roots…As long as the mineworkers think that their problem is the only problem in the world, we’ve got a problem. As long as the Indians think that their problem is the only problem in the world, we’ve got a problem. As long as black people think that they’ve got the only problem in the world, we’ve got a problem. We’ve got to stop thinking about our own little stuff, and do like a root doctor would do. Go down! Get the tree by the roots!  Don’t play with no leaves and no limbs! Turn it over!

We are in a fight today much like before. Our potential ranks have only grown. But our tendency to play with leaves and limbs have continued. So long as we think our problems are the only problems in the world, we’re always going to have problems. The key to understanding how to resolve what King called the “cruel manipulation of the poor” from the point of the view of the organized poor and dispossessed is to adopt Albert Turner’s approach as a “Root Doctor.” 

Albert Turner, the ‘Root Doctor,’ speaks at the Survival Summit organized by the National Union of the Homeless and the National Welfare Rights Union in 1989.

We need a strategy for our time that can out-maneuver the enemies of the poor in all their particular forms. One crucial part of today’s organizing is happening in the form of the rebirth of the National Union of the Homeless. In an article lifting up this effort, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis stated clearly the core strategy of this organizing effort, and it should be extended to every front of struggle of the poor:

At the core of this new effort can be found the ethos of the Homeless Union; that poor people can be agents of change, not just subjects of a cruel history; that within our communities lies the political calculus for transformation in this country; that our power as poor people depends on our ability to unite across difference; and that the position of the homeless only anticipates the poverty and precarity of millions of people in an economy undergoing massive structural change and dislocation.

This is the answer to the cruel manipulation of the poor. If it was an easy task, we would have done it already. Nevertheless, if we orient our work around this strategy that believes poor people can lead and transform society, that we must unite across lines of difference, that the poor today show the direction of all of society, then we will be heading in the right direction.