WATCH: Dr. Bernice A. King Reflects on Her Father’s Vision for a Guaranteed Income

01. 13. 2023

"How do we do this in a way that it's a win-win pathway for both parties? To me, that’s what the spirit of the guaranteed income does."

The fight for an economy that works for everyone is as urgent today as it’s ever been. But this fight has a long history, dating back as far as the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated for a guaranteed income as a pillar in the battle for the equality of all people, because he viewed economic security as a necessary complement to racial equality.   

Dr. Bernice A. King spoke about these deep roots of the guaranteed income movement at the Guaranteed Income Now conference in Atlanta in September of last year. Dr. King is CEO of the King Center and daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her talk touched on her father’s commitment to a guaranteed income, and on the importance of continuing the long-overlooked economic aspects of Dr. King’s work. She brought this history right up to the present, involving the activists and elected officials in the room, reminding them of the importance of their work carrying forward this component of her father’s legacy. She stressed the importance of doing this work with compassion and care, not just for other people but for themselves.

It was an inspiring talk that offered an important perspective on the movement for a guaranteed income. For those not fortunate enough to have been in the room, we’re including an edited version of the conversation below.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Michael D. Tubbs:

So in the audience we have advocates, community members, foundation heads, elected officials, mayors, county supervisors, who have all dedicated themselves to this idea of ‘how do you make guaranteed income a reality?’ We’ve talked about the movement moving forward, but we wanted this conversation to also ground us in the past. This isn’t new. This isn’t novel. So I want to start our conversation, Dr. King, with: Can you share with us your family’s legacy, in terms of guaranteed income? How is that part of the Kingian legacy, and what does it mean for you to see, 50-plus years later, so much energy around this simple concept your family was talking about decades ago?

Dr. Bernice A. King:

Let me first thank you for taking up this cause. There’s so much of my father’s work that has been left by the wayside, especially on the economic side. So I’m deeply appreciative of what you are doing and what many of you mayors and superintendents are doing across this nation. How did he get there? Obviously, my father grew up witnessing a lot of economic inequities as a child here in Atlanta, Georgia and noticed some differences even when he went to the north to work in the tobacco fields. So all of this stirred up his perspective on racism, poverty, and ultimately, his triple evils with militarism.

Just before the movement, he wrote a letter to my mom and talked about the inseparable twins of racial and economic injustice. So even before the movement started, this was all seeded in him.

What really pushed him over the edge was when President Johnson called for the war on poverty. And yet you had this Vietnam war taking place. And it was deeply troubling for my father because not only was he looking at the physical devastation of what he felt was an unjust war, but also the economic devastation in particular for Black citizens. So he felt like we have got to figure out a way to address this. And of course, he was a scholar, did a lot of reading, and knew about all of the discussions around guaranteed income. It wasn’t anything that he came up with himself because it was widely being discussed. 

The economist that he referred to mostly was John Kenneth Galbraith. In studying him, he came across the fact that if we just spent about $20 billion, we could address poverty head-on. And for him, he saw it as the answer to all these other issues–whether you’re talking about housing, education, etc.even if you address those, you still won’t directly deal with poverty. The real issue is about money, it’s about income, it’s about full employment and a livable wage. So he wrote about it in his book, Where Do We Go From Here in particular and discussed it even in his last speech at the SCLC Convention in 1967.

For him it was like, wait a minute, we’re spending all these financial resources on a war destroying lives in so many different ways. The cost of that war was detracting from the war on poverty, so I think it was somewhere around $55 million with the war and all of the exploration that we were doing related to the moon. And he felt like, wow, if we only spent $20 billion versus $55 billion, we could alleviate these issues around poverty. That’s what he called for. That’s why he said a guaranteed income. For him, it was about pegging it to the median income but not the low side of that median income. And not just that, ensuring that it was dynamic and not static, that it would rise as inflation rose. So that was really intriguing for me. But as you know, the biggest issue we have today is the will. The resources are here. So we have to figure out how to develop the will in people.

Michael D. Tubbs:

I love the fact you called out that the fight for civil rights or human rights was always an economic fight. It was always about full inclusion in the democracy, but also in the economic systems and how those things were never separate or different movements or even different trains of thought. They were always linked, and that was always how your family and others thought of the movement. 

I would love to hear your thoughts around it, particularly in this moment when we have assaults on reproductive rights, voting rights, LGBT rights, just all rights are under attack. How do we build the will generally, A.), and then B.), particularly for these folks, because the folks in the room are tired. They’ve been working. How do we take care of ourselves while building the will to do something that’s necessary, but hasn’t been done yet because there’s a lot of blocks there?

Dr. Bernice A. King:

You know, the reality is the freedom struggle, it never ends, as my mother said. The struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation. We all have to pace ourselves in this process.

But the biggest thing that I think is different today than when my father was in leadership, is that he had a way of keeping a critical mass of people together on a day-to-day basis, focused strategically on attacking things systemically or systematically. And we don’t do that today.

So I think … Not that they weren’t tired because they were very tired. I mean, this is tiring work. Let’s just be real. When my father’s autopsy was done, he had the heart of a 75-year-old. He was 39. So it’s tiring work. I don’t think that’s ever not going to happen. But each one of us has to decide how we are going to do our self-care in this process and not feel guilty about it.

But what helped people back then; they knew they had a leadership structure that kept things moving. So if I know in my absence you all are still working together collectively, cohesively in a coordinated fashion, it makes it easier to take that time away to deal with yourself. Even your spiritual self. Because we have to understand that … In the philosophy of nonviolence, the sixth principle reminds us, and this is very hard for people to grasp, that the universe is on the side of justice.

Now, it’s not just automatic, it means that a collective of us have to line up with that so the energy for justice will continue to reveal itself on our earth.And so when you understand that, you put your belief in that, you put your faith or trust in that, and it gives you a little bit of ease in your heart. That’s what helps me.

There has to be a collective. There has to be a collective, a critical mass committed to bringing that to bear. Okay? But where the ease comes is really aligning with it and accepting that. And for me, the way I accept it is, I just look at the history. There’s too much in history that proves to us that we triumph over evil and injustice. We wouldn’t be where we are today and doing what we … I wouldn’t be sitting in this room with so many white people. Not in Atlanta. Even in Atlanta. You know what I’m saying?

So there’s enough there for me to hold onto. That’s why you don’t discard history or discredit it. Because there’s a tendency in our arrogance to feel like, “We are the chosen ones, the chosen generation.” But the reality is there were those before us that had the fortitude and the strength and the foresight and the faith and the courage to push through and overcome these things and have a sense of ingenuity in the process.

That’s why we’re here. We took the baton from them. We need to draw our strength from them. We need to extract the lessons.

That’s why I encourage people … And this is somewhat of a selfish plug, but it’s not a selfish plug, because in 1964, when my father delivered his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, he talked about the urgency and the immediate need for the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence to be seriously experimented with … Let me see. I want to get it right. He said that the philosophy and strategy immediately become a subject of study and serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, by no means excluding relationships between nations.

And so we now have an opportunity to truly study nonviolence and how it worked holistically through time and history, going back, as we know, to the most familiar, Mahatma Gandhi, and fast forwarding to Dr. King.

And the work that we do at The King Center, we just literally launched in January an online experience for people to learn it so that you can do it at your own pace. You can go back and ask critical questions, you can sit with it, you can reflect and engage with it. It’s very interactive. 

I believe selfishly that we will not get to the beloved community, we will not get to a just, humane, equitable, peaceful world but through the nonviolence way. And I’m a little selfish in it because I believe what my father gave us was a gift. He gave us not just tactics; he gave us a philosophy, a foundation, a love-centered way of attacking these evils so that we do not become the evil when we are trying to correct the evil.

Because there’s a danger when you’re correcting something that has been so excruciating and painful and oppressive, there’s a danger in our emotion, in fashioning a solution that we will do the same thing to another group of people. So we have to be very careful in the process.

But I wanted to say, because you asked me a question, “How do we do this?” That’s how we do it. We’ve got to study the approach, because we’ve got to use our energy more strategically.

And sometimes, unfortunately, as much as we have people who are advocates for social change in so many different arenas… the reality is we’ve got to find a way to come out of our silos.

I’m a minister in the Christian faith. I’m not getting ready to evangelize. So if you’re part of another religion, don’t worry about that, because I’m very sensitive to that. But there’s a scripture in Nehemiah that is so critical about rebuilding these walls. I mean, the devastation instruction. And there’s a particular one that has intrigued me and troubled … Not troubled me, but has me a little bit on edge, saying, “Okay, God, keep helping me to see what it is in this that people can understand.”

But what I’ve gotten is Nehemiah pulled all the leaders and the people together, and he said, “Look, this work that we are dealing with is extensive.”

Anybody agree? It’s very extensive.

And we are widely separated on the wall. Does anybody agree with that? I mean, we are in our different pockets in areas addressing, in particular this group, issues around poverty and the guaranteed income. And so we are widely spread doing it.

And then he says, “When you hear the sound of the trumpet, come hither. Come to this particular spot and place.” I’m just going to declare today is that spot, this moment is that spot. “Come to that place and our God will fight for us.”

Our collective energy, if we stay focused, connected, and coordinated, and not give up, the power of the universe will meet us in it. We don’t know the moment. Rosa Parks didn’t know that she was going to set a movement off. I mean, when Harriet Tubman was freeing slaves, she didn’t know how far that was going to go. 

So that’s what gives you the greater resolve because you know that you are aligned with something that’s right and just, and that there’s going to be this energy that meets me in it. And it may not solve everything, but if you can just glimpse at the victories, no matter how small you may think they are. These individuals that were sitting here today, that’s part of the victory. Their testimonies and their stories, that’s part of the victory. And we have to capture those things, we have to bottle those things and we have to package those things and we’ve got to distribute them throughout this country, because there are too many people that don’t know what’s happening in this room. It’s catching on. But there’s so many other people that need to know about it. The data that you have.

When you started your pilot [Mayor Tubb’s Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration] and I read about the fact that the majority of the people, if not all, spent their money on the right things, on needs. People need to understand that because the number one attack is, we’re just giving a handout. No, we’re giving a hand up. You see what I’m saying? We are helping to create some of this equity that’s missing in our society, but we’ve got to show it to some people for it to make sense. And so there’s a big job in doing this where there has to be a massive marketing campaign and distribution through all channels and mediums of communication in this nation because more and more people need to join this movement. I’m not just talking about elected officials, I appreciate that you all started this, but we’ve got to get it codified in federal law that this is a part of… When daddy spoke about it, he was talking about not something temporary. He was talking about something permanent.

Because the reality is that our world economy, our national economy, it’s going to have its ups and downs. There’s going to be market dislocations andthe emergence of technology, and we need to incorporate that into our thinking. 

But the reality is that we have to make sure that we continue to keep the thought of people at the forefront so that we don’t displace humanity. The world wasn’t created for robots. Hello. All of these things are just supposed to be tools. But if we don’t keep our priorities and our values, that’s why he called for a revolution of values, if we don’t keep that in order and make sure that we value humanity, humankind, people, individuals, breathing, living beings, then we will take these instruments, as he said, and destroy ourselves in the misuse of them. 

So something has to happen to this universe and this, what you are doing, is keeping the focus around humanity and people. That’s important. You know what I’m saying? Compassion. This is about compassion. This is about the fact that you are my sister, you’re my brother, we are a family and all these wonderful things are at our behest and we have all these wonderful opportunities and we’ve got to figure out a way to make it work for everybody so that the quality of life is excellent for… Everybody’s not going to be a millionaire, but they have everything they need plus a little more.

I know you all have envisioned a world like that. I have. That’s why I worked toward it. That’s what keeps me going, the vision. Because without the vision, we perish in our minds and our thoughts in our day-to-day living. And so I have to keep that vision before me and keep pushing toward it. Every day. I wake up with that. This is not about me, it’s not about you. It starts with me, but it’s not about me. It’s really about having a other-centered perspective and recognizing and being other-centered. I’m not diminishing myself, I’m elevating myself. Because you can’t even be other-centered without caring for self in an appropriate way. But if your life is just about your own circle, it’s a hollow life. And that’s what we are challenged with a lot. There’s a lot of self-centeredness today. But thank you all for caring. Thank you for having compassion and thank you for the work that you’re doing. It’s awesome, really. And it’s just the beginning.

Michael D. Tubbs:

Think we’ve got time for one more question. But before we do the question, I just want to make sure we also take a time to reflect on what you just shared, because I think it was both powerful and prophetic. You talked about the Book of Nehemiah and when they were on the wall and when you hear the trumpets all come together and you said, this could be that moment for us today. I just want to underline that because that was powerful to me.

But what I also appreciate about the Nehemiah story, and it’s my favorite scripture, and I don’t read the Bible like you but when I read it, it’s what I read. He says, the people rebuilt the wall because they had a mind to work. And this idea of being–you talked about being focused and disciplined and strategic and having some tactics. Because I think oftentimes we think we have to reinvent the wheel or that this work is disconnected, but you can’t be for guaranteed income and be against non-violence. So you gave us some homework in terms of going to the kingcenter.org and sign up for that non-violence 360 class, which I will do-

Dr. Bernice A. King:


Michael D. Tubbs:

365, yes.

Dr. Bernice A. King:

It means every day of the week.

Michael D. Tubbs:

I got to take some days off. You said self-care, I got to take some days off. 

Dr. Bernice A. King:

Oh, gotcha. That’s good.

Michael D. Tubbs:

So that, and then you also talked about how, particularly at this inflection point in human history, when there is real threats about displacement, like robots, whatever, if we don’t fix the here and now, which is what guaranteed income is about, if we don’t get to the point where we understand that you have dignity because you’re a person, you ain’t got to do nothing, you ain’t got to produce nothing, just because you’re a human, you have dignity. If we don’t get that right, the next 100 years will be very, very scary. So I want to thank you for that.

And the last question, it’s not even a question, it’s going to be a provocation because we think about your father being at the mountaintop and promised land and you talked about a little bit in terms of how you wake up every day and you see a world where everyone has just enough and a little more, which I love. Just not enough, but a little bit more. So could you describe that world, your vision? What does our country look like with a guaranteed income? What would America look like if/when the fruit of our laborers come to fruition?

Dr. Bernice A. King:

Well, the number one thing that people are concerned about across the nation is crime and violence. That’s real. I don’t care what race you are, what class you are, you’re concerned about it. And when we have a world where people have what they need, plus, that kind of violence and crime begins to diminish and become insignificant. It’s under control. It’s under wraps. That’s the first thing. So, we need this as a solution for that. That’s the first thing. And then it does something to people. When you have what you need and can make decisions without feeling like you are begging or you are borrowing or robbing Peter to pay Paul, you feel better about yourself. And when you feel better about yourself, your ability to be productive is greater. So we have more productive workers. That’s beneficial for corporations. People are stressed economically. And with all of these fluctuations, and I say manipulations in our market, we have to insert something like this. We have no choice. Because if we don’t do this now, then the unsheltered population is going to grow even greater. And the exorbitant level of mental health is going to be out the roof because it’s abnormal to have to live in the circumstances that they live in. That’s not human. That’s not humane, let me say that.

And so I can just imagine if we do this right, even that becomes less of an eye sore on our nation. We won’t even be talking about homelessness. Because when people’s stress levels are freed up, they’re more innovative. We think we’re innovative now. Can you imagine having 80% of the people, stress level so low? Everything that we’re looking at saying, how do we fix, how do we solve, how do we address? We’ll come up with these solutions and we’ll be so happy to work with each other together on them. That’s the world that I want to see. And that we are not trying to exploit and grab somebody else’s resources. We’re respecting not only the dignity of work, but also the dignity of community and placement. And we’re not eyeing certain communities to gentrify. We’re trying to figure out how to enrich those communities. How to empower and strengthen those communities. 

The fear, the greatest thing that we have to address today is fear. And it’s widespread in all classes. The reason we have some of these issues is because of fear. If you are in a place of power and another person wants to move into that place of power, sometimes it can feel a little threatening. How do we do this in a way that it’s a win-win pathway for both parties? To me, that’s what the spirit of the guaranteed income does, because even to get to the mindset of doing this means you’ve gotten to a place where you understand that we are a collective family, that you’re willing to see some give and take, some sacrifice.

When you inject that more into society, then we can help to bring down the fear level. And so to me, that’s the world that I want to live in, and so that people are not exploiting, oppressing and destroying communities and everything else, and countries, like what’s happening with Russia and Ukraine. 

Before my daddy… Well, I didn’t say that right. The night that he gave a speech, perhaps he knew it was his last night the way it seems from looking at it. But the night he gave that speech, he said two simple things to the crowd, and I think it applies to us today. He said, “Don’t stop here in Memphis,” if something were to happen to him. There’s always something in the universe that wants to disrupt and stop good. Okay. Don’t let it. Don’t let it cause you to dissipate, disintegrate and separate. 

And then the second part, where he said, “Stick together, stay together.” Whatever you do, stay together in this process. Keep it up until you get to the vision and the outcome that you’re seeking. Please don’t quit. I know it’s hard. I know it’s tiring. But remember those that came before you. They didn’t quit. They kept moving. Their 382 days was a long time to stay off of buses. But they were determined, not until I see a change. So you say that to yourself, not until I see a change. I can’t quit.

Michael D. Tubbs:

Thank you so much Dr. King. You gave us a gift.