One of the most important revelations Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had even before he delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech—and what he deemed a shortcoming of the Civil Rights Movement—was the failure to give economics a more pivotal role in the struggle for freedom and justice.
The strategy of boycotting businesses that discriminated against African-Americans, which, in part, applied Adam Clayton Powell’s mantra of “Don’t buy where you can’t work,” was gradually adopted by the early ‘60s, and five years after his great speech, it became more evident, arriving at perhaps its signal moment during the Poor People’s Campaign.
“We are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses,” King announced in his march on the nation’s capital in 1968. “We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect…We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago.”
Well, 50 years later, Black America is still waiting for that and other promises to be fulfilled.
A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) titled “Unfinished Business of the 1963 March on Washington” underscores five decades of disappointment for Black Americans and the nation’s poor and how the quest for jobs and freedom are unaccomplished goals.
The report notes that “while the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led to legislative victories—including mandating equal access to public accommodations, barring racial discrimination in employment and protecting Blacks’ voting rights—the hard economic tasks of the march remain a distant dream.
“The remaining goals of the march,” the report continues, “include the demand for decent housing, adequate and integrated education, full employment and a national minimum wage that can realistically lift a family out of poverty—all of which are crucial to transforming the life opportunities of African-Americans and people of all races and ethnicities.”
When King began to speak out against the war in Vietnam and the extent to which millions of dollars were being spent to conduct an “unjust war” at the expense of the impoverished masses, he boldly emphasized the movement’s economic thrust. His later commitment to the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., was another step toward bringing about economic parity, and the subsequent Poor People’s Campaign was his final effort to deal with some of the things highlighted in the EPI’s report.
“Large numbers of African-Americans still lack decent and safe housing. They still lack adequate and integrated education, full employment and a guaranteed living wage, all of which are essential to Blacks’ full social and economic inclusion in American society,” wrote Algernon Austin, the report’s author.
None of these inadequacies are alien to our editorial space. Separately and together, we’ve hammered away at these inequities, and we certainly commend the report, which merely makes empirically true what many in our community have known for years and years.
As our readers will attest, it is not news to us that the Black poverty rate remains nearly three times higher than the white poverty rate. Many of us know firsthand that far too many of our children are barely surviving in neighborhoods, bereft of decent schools and where the opportunities to get out of the economic muck is increasingly difficult, if not impossible.
In effect, we don’t need any report—no matter how well-meaning and instructive—to tell us about the depth and unrelieved onslaught of the misery index. We have talked until we were practically breathless about income inequality, the deplorable living wage, the absence of affordable housing and unemployment figures, that are more than twice as bad for Black Americans seeking meaningful work.
It’s good to be reminded about our problems; the real issue is how to we go about improving things. How do we marshal the wherewithal to make King’s dream a reality?
For many, the civil rights struggle was a calling and for those who fought so hard and sacrificed so much, they had hoped that the job had been done. They had hoped that the equality that was sought and the gains that were being made would continue and that 50 years later there would be equality and parity.
For so many of the next two generations, they were taught to work hard, go to school and use the advances that had been gained to make a better life. In essence, they were told, “We [the civil rights pioneers] have done the fighting for you, and now it is your turn to make us proud.”
But the fact is that we sat on our hands. We did not keep up the vigilance, and now, 50 years later, we need to learn to fight all over again, because the more things change, the more things remain the same. We have to stay vigilant. We need to keep King’s dream in the forefront, and as we teach our children to be the best they can be, we need to continuously teach them how to fight for the dream. If we don’t—as we have seen just in the past few years—there are those who will try at every turn to take away what little of the dream is left to save. Bring back the dream, and we bring back America.