Nearly 50 years ago, an extraordinary man had a dream that challenged Americans to acknowledge the deep roots of injustice within the power structures of our nation. He dared all citizens to have the audacity to envision an alternative to long-standing systems of oppression. It wasn’t the dream of a country desegregated and without racism—the one immortalized in his historic speech five years prior. This was a dream of economic justice.
The man, of course, was Martin Luther King Jr. And while we so often evoke the image of King as a champion of civil rights—recognition he rightly deserves—in the final years of his life he had also become a dogged advocate for poverty reduction, more equitable wealth distribution, and economic empowerment through work opportunity.
n some ways, this was the most radical platform he ever took up. It may well be the one that cost him his life. In the weeks before his death, King was in the midst of planning the “Poor People’s Campaign,” a dramatic stake in the ground for Americans demanding economic justice, which would take the form of a protest camp on the National Mall in Washington, DC. He did not live to see the march through to fruition, but his writing and oratory on his vision of economic freedom resonates deeply today.
“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” said King.
We do his legacy a disservice if we don’t routinely examine our progress toward the economic aims that he so vehemently sought.
Five decades later, how far have we come?
King looked out on a country in which black unemployment was nearly twice that of whites. That same statement is still true today and has remained true for the majority of the intervening years. The wealth gap has widened staggeringly since King’s day. Poverty continues to be an inescapable reality for millions of Americans of all races—albeit disproportionately so for black and Hispanic families. The factors that perpetuate these disparities still exist throughout our economic system—from barriers to homeownership to a lack of available credit for minority entrepreneurs.
Martin Luther King knew what we at Living Cities have come to recognize over the course of our work: that racial inequality and economic inequality in this country cannot be overcome in isolation. Which means we certainly have our work cut out for us.
Said King, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.“ It’s a travesty that these words are perhaps even more true of today’s America than when they were spoken in 1968. But it also means that we can continue to turn back to King’s agenda for inspiration, and take up the mantle he set before us of ensuring economic justice for all Americans.