We honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. not just for his heroic championing of social justice, but economic justice as well. Indeed, income inequality was always a central focus for Dr. King, who in 1951 told Correta Scott that “a society based on making all the money you can and ignoring people’s needs, is wrong.”
Which is why, in 1967, Dr. King launched the Poor People’s Campaign, which championed economic justice for black Americans and poor minorities (including whites) alike, aiming to give them the collective power to “assert and win their right to a decent life.”
As Bob Lord notes in his op-ed, “Dr. King’s Nightmare,” Dr. King’s activism was always squarely focused on economic justice. His historic March on Washington was for “jobs and justice,” and at the time of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, he was advocating on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. In fact, some of his last words were to those sanitation workers on the need to fight, in the face of intense opposition, for their economic justice:
“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
Dr. King’s fight for the economic justice of poor Americans is one reason why Lord writes the following, understanding that the richest 400 billionaires now posses as much wealth as the nation’s entire African-American population:
How would MLK view the Forbes 400 controlling as much wealth as our entire African-American population of about 41 million people? Could that state of affairs co-exist with his dream?
Hardly. At the outset of that speech about his dream, the civil rights leader noted that one century after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Dr. King’s dream was as much about economic justice as it was about social justice. Today’s distribution of wealth in America represents his nightmare come true – even with Barack Obama serving as our president.
I have absolutely no doubt that, had Dr. King been alive during the fall of 2011, he would have been one of the most visible and vocal members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and would be focused intensely on the extreme income inequality which exists in the United States.
He would be railing against the fact that America has one of the worst economic mobility rates among ‘developed’ nations. He would be marching against Walmart and Wall Street alike, decrying the increasing gap between the rich and poor in America.
And he would be organizing the black community to fight the economic inequality racism in America helped cause, and has helped to maintain in conjunction with the suffocating economic divide between CEOs and workers, between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent.
As we honor Dr. King on Monday, let us also remember that one of his central fights – the struggle for economic justice – is being lost. Each day. As the divide grows larger. As our nation’s wealth continues to congregate in the pockets of a few.
And perhaps by remembering, we will be compelling to take to the streets, again, and demand that which Dr. King sought: “the right to a decent life.”
For all Americans.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.