Economic justice still elusive long after Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’

Edna Kane-Williams, Trice Edney News Wire | 2/20/2016, 9:57 a.m.
Unlike the hard-won Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the struggle for economic parity never ...
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a team of activists and aides leave the West Wing after meeting with President Johnson on Aug. 5, 1965, the day before Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. After that victory, the movement turned toward economic justice, but assassination took King’s life. (Photo: National Archive and Records Administration /WhiteHouse.gov)

On April 3, 1968, nearly five years after his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., told a gathering of preachers at the Mason Temple in Memphis that it was time to deal with poverty in America.

“It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day,” he told them.

Less than 24 hours later, King was killed by an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Hotel. He had been preparing to escalate his new agenda – the “Poor People’s Campaign,” launched five months earlier in partnership with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Unlike the hard-won Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the struggle for economic parity never came to fruition. Now, nearly a half century later, leading economic justice advocates say King’s unfulfilled agenda has laid dormant far too long.

“He knew that without wealth, we would still be segregated,” says Ronald Cooper, president of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB). “He felt that black people not only needed social justice, but we needed economic justice to allow us to move into the middle class, to move into neighborhoods of our choosing.”

According to statistics, that equality is quite a ways off. The Pew Research Center reported last year that “the wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010.”

The Pew study, based on analysis of data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, states, “The current gap between blacks and whites has reached its highest point since 1989, when whites had 17 times the wealth of black households.”

In King’s final years, there is no question that economic equality was foremost on his mind. His numerous speeches often focused on it, including “Transforming a Neighborhood Into a Brotherhood,” an August 1967 speech to a NAREB convention in San Francisco.

Now, in 2016, economics is increasingly on the agendas of social justice leaders, including Cooper and National Urban League President Marc Morial. Morial recently published a column asking, “What Will 2016 Bring for Economic and Political Opportunity and Social Justice?”

He suggests that a national minimum wage hike “would be a significant step toward reducing poverty.”

With black joblessness twice the rate of that for white people, he also suggests that Congress “create thousands of jobs and revitalize the national economy by enacting a surface transportation bill that guarantees employment for workers in low- and moderate-income communities and ensures access to contracts for minority businesses.”

On the other hand, Cooper says homeownership is the key to growing wealth and that closing the 30 percent home ownership gap between African Americans and white Americans is crucial. He suggests pushing for policies that end lending discrimination and educates African Americans and other minorities on how to become homeowners.

Advocates acknowledge that economic issues may sound complex to communities that have struggled for years. But in a March 1968 meeting with the SCLC, King made the vision clear and simple.

‘”This is a highly significant event,’” he said in the meeting, documented by Stanford University. He described the Poor People’s Campaign as “the beginning of a new cooperation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.’”

(Edna Kane-Williams is senior vice president for multicultural leadership at AARP.)