Jan. 12, 2006 -- For the next six weeks, people will be quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with amazing regularity. Corporations will take out ads in newspapers and magazines that trumpet the fact that they “share” Dr. King’s dream. Folks (me, too) will fly all over the country talking about Dr. King and his dream. But few will point out that Dr. King did not die dreaming – he died trying to raise the wages of garbage workers in Memphis, Tenn.
When people quote the “I Have A Dream” speech that Martin Luther King gave on Aug. 28, 1963, the favorite quote seems to be “I have a dream that people will be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” In the very same speech, though, Dr. King said, “We have come to the nation’s capital to cash a check, and that check has been marked ‘insufficient funds.’ If people said, “Cash the check” as often as they said, “I have a dream,” the African-American consciousness toward economic issues might be very different.
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African-American people have more than $750 billion in annual income, but just 2 percent of our nation’s wealth. Nearly half of us own homes, compared to nearly 75 percent of all Whites. We don’t have our fair share of the nation’s economic pie, but we don’t use the share we have efficiently or effectively.
The King Center is dilapidated and needs more than $11 million in repairs, but African-American people have turned a deaf ear to pleas to support the center, and it may be sold to the National Park Service so it can be properly preserved. Similarly, when a museum honoring the boxer Muhammad Ali was built in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., few African Americans made major gifts to that institution.
That’s the story at the top – more African Americans have income and wealth than we did when Dr. King was living, but one might argue that we do not use that wealth to develop the African-American community. At the bottom, poverty does not have a permanent place on our collective radar screen. Oh, we mentioned poverty in the wake of hurricane Katrina, but four months after our domestic tsunami hit, people are speaking of donor fatigue and tens of thousands – mostly poor people who were renters – remain displaced.
The folks who will commemorate Dr. King’s birthday seem to have forgotten that he died in the middle of a Poor People’s Campaign, an activity fully focused in empowering the poor. They seem to have forgotten that Dr. King pointed to poverty as “an abomination in our age” and talked about the structure of our economy as a reason for the poverty that one in eight Americans experience.
“There are 40 million poor people in America,” Dr. King wrote in his 1968 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. “You have to ask yourself what kind of country has 40 million poor people. And when you ask that question, you have to ask about the very structure of our nation’s economy. Who owns the oil? Who owns the iron ore? Why do we pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?” Dr. King asked the questions that we have yet to fully confront. These days, instead of asking about the structure of our economy, too many African American leaders are simply asking how to get a bigger piece of a flawed pie.
The minimum wage has been $5.15 for a decade, and there is no groundswell of support for a higher national minimum wage (though some states have living wage legislation currently pending). More than 40 million Americans have no health insurance. Yet issues of economic distribution are rarely addressed in the policy domain.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about economic issues and economic inequities. He spoke about the skewed nature of our economic system. He talked about an economic superhighway, where Black folks rode along the side road. He understood economic issues in ways that are often obscured in contemporary interpretations of his work.
We may not all agree about ways to interpret Dr. King’s work, but we must reject the sanitized version of him that is trotted out each January. Dr. King did not die dreaming; he died trying to save an America that remains woefully unconcerned about issues of parity, poverty and economic justice. If we are to truly commemorate the King legacy, we must rededicate ourselves to the issues that he gave his life for, and give our nation’s poor something more than perfunctory lip service.
What do you think is Dr. King's most lasting message?