The unveiling of a massive 30-foot monument honoring the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. marks a major milestone in our nation’s history. It was almost 48 years ago when Dr. King, along with a coalition of civil rights leaders that included A. Phillip Randolph, John Lewis, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, helmed a March comprised of over 200,000 people of all races and creeds who converged on Washington D.C. to peacefully demand that our nation live up to its creed that “all men were created equal.”
“We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” said King in his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. The check that King eloquently alludes to in his historic speech is the moral promissory note that America issues to each of its citizens. But in August of 1963, King declared that the check America issued us was bogus as far as African-Americans and people of color were concerned. The “insufficient funds” that King referred to was a scathing indictment of America’s moral aptitude at the time.
The popular perception of the “March on Washington” is that it was all about civil rights; but, the truth is that the march was just as much about economic rights as it was civil rights. Remember that the proper name for the march is The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The reason why the organizers (dubbed the "Big Six" by media pundits) linked economic and civil rights is because they recognized that the two issues are inseparable. You can’t fight for one without fighting for the other. King understood this better than anyone. “Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation,” wrote King in his powerful essay “Why We Can’t Wait.” “They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But the Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant relationship.”
King also understood that this malignant relationship between racism and poverty not only hurt people of color but whites as well. After all, poor whites and the middle class are being shafted by the same people who economically exploit people of color. Unfortunately, many of them can’t see this connection because of their racist views. He also instinctively understood that our country’s involvement in unjust wars such as the one in Vietnam was draining our nation’s resources and prevented us from fighting what he felt was the real threat to domestic tranquility: poverty and racism. This is the fundamental reason that he spent the latter part of his life advocating peace while fighting against poverty and racism.
Needless to say, this nation owes Dr. King a huge debt of gratitude for his willingness to sacrifice his life for a better America. And even though we can never repay our debt, we hope that a national holiday and a 30-foot monument, along with all progressive Americans’ continued struggle for peace and social justice, can at least serve as a small token toward a down payment.