50 Years Later, We Still Need MLK, Jr.’s Call for Economic Justice

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. As we remember the tragedy of that day fifty years ago, we also observe MLK, Jr.’s life and legacy. An important part of his legacy came in the final years of his life as the Rev. Dr. King increasingly turned his attention toward economic inequality. At a rally for sanitation workers in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. King remarked, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

In December 1967, the Rev. Dr. King announced a plan for a new march on Washington. This march was to demand better jobs, better homes, and better education. The Poor People’s Campaign would unite poor African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and whites in a movement for economic justice.

Fifty years later, we still need MLK, Jr.’s call for economic justice. The economy does not work equally or equitably for everyone. Decades of reporting on poverty, wage inequality, wealth inequality, disparities based on race and gender, and a shrinking middle class offer ample evidence of economic distress for millions of Americans.

While the unemployment rate for African Americans is at its lowest point in history, African American unemployment is double the white unemployment rate. And African American wages and wealth are still significantly lower than wages and wealth of whites. Contributing factors are massive inequalities in opportunity in the areas of education as well as the mass incarceration of African Americans.

In the spirit and tradition of the 1967-68 campaign, moral leaders today have launched a new Poor People’s Campaign: “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is uniting tens of thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.”

From the new Poor People’s Campaign website:

King and the other leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign asked fundamental questions about the contradictions of their day. Today, many of the groups interested in re-igniting the Poor People’s Campaign are asking similar questions about the problems of inequality, power and class:

We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are words that must be said.

King exemplified the clarity, commitment, capability, and connectedness needed to build a movement to end poverty:

I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out…This is the way I’m going.

This commitment is needed from all leaders interested in taking up King’s mantle. He demonstrated the difficulty and necessity of uniting the poor and dispossessed across race, religion, geography and other lines that divide. In our efforts to commemorate and build a Poor People’s Campaign for our times, we will undertake an analysis of the 1967-68 Campaign. We aim to stand on the shoulders of those who came before and put effort into learning lessons and getting into step together.

 

Along with the Poor People’s Campaign are America’s Goals for 2030: “A community-based approach to a vibrant economy, opportunity for all, and a healthy natural environment.” Goal 5 of the seven goals is Equal Opportunity for All: Equal pay for equal work regardless of gender or race; End mass incarceration; and Freedom from ethnic and racial profiling for everyone.

We can honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by doing all we can to bring about real and lasting economic justice. To do this we need to get involved. Join the Poor People’s Campaign. Pledge to support America’s Goals. Hold our elected officials accountable to pass economic policies which promote justice.