By Thandi Chimurenga
Every year, the scene is the same: Millions of well-meaning patriots gather in parks and parades to salute peace activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and honor his fabled dream of an all-inclusive, color-blind America. Less attention is paid, however, to King’s fight for economic equality in America, which was a key component of the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
Ignoring that reality is to ignore a key aspect of King’s dream for America, some activists say.
“Dr. King famously said, ‘The right to sit at a lunch counter is empty if you cannot afford a meal,’” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “Dr. King understood that economic justice is part of equal rights. He knew that without economic equality, one could not truly be liberated.”
Ridley-Thomas, former director of the local branch of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the fight for economic justice is as critical today as it was some 50 years ago – in part, some say, because the education, health and wealth gaps between blacks and whites continues to widen.
“Every American deserves access to health care, education and a decent standard of living,” Ridley-Thomas said. “There is still much more to be done so that all Americans have access to a piece of the American Dream.”
Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, one of King’s closest aides, said while economic equality was a key element of King’s thinking, certain realities forced movement leaders to dramatize more practical aspects of the civil rights struggle.
“One of the problems we faced [was] anybody who talked about economic equality in the ’50s and ’60s was a communist,” Young said during a recent telephone interview. “Black people … seemed to be more responsive to the human rights issues; human dignity issues like the back of the bus, the lunch counters.
“We didn’t choose those tactics, the people themselves did — the issues around police brutality, the human dignity issues were the ones that were crying out,” he said.
Young said, however, that movement leaders understood all along that the fight for justice was more economic than social.
“One of the reasons [Dr. King] was anxious to get into the poverty issue is he began to see that it was almost a choice between guns and butter,” Young said. “He said, ‘Are going to feed the hungry in America or are we going to use the money to make war?’ ”
King’s focus on economic parity was on full display during the final crusade of his life, observers say, as he launched the Poor Peoples’ Campaign in November 1967 — five months, as it turned out, before being assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Supporting garbage workers’ fight for fair wages in Memphis, Tennessee, King said the campaign was intended to “descend on Washington, D.C., southern states and northern cities to meet with government officials to demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children designed to improve their self-image and self-esteem.”
Some observers believe it was King’s focus on black economic power over social equality that ultimately got him killed.
“I remember my father saying that one of the reasons Dr. King and Malcolm X were assassinated was because they had begun to build this coalition with African countries around the idea of people of color controlling their own economy,” said Elizabeth Omilami, the daughter of one of King’s closest aides, Hosea Williams.
Omilami said her father, who died in 2000, understood that social equality was virtually meaningless without economic power.
“That’s something that Dr. King shared with him — not to get a job, but to be employers,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “Because Dr. King began to start to talk … about black businesses, buying black, teaching children about running their own businesses and doing enterprises with people in other countries, African countries as well as Japanese companies.”
Ultimately, King came to realize that “racial justice without economic justice was a farce,” Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges would say years later.
In fact, just two weeks before his assassination, King spoke about his transition from civil rights to economic equality as he reflected on the victories of the civil rights movement.
“Now our struggle is for genuine equality — which means economic equality,” he told striking members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) on March 18, 1968.
“For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters,” he said. “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?”
King would be assassinated just before the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, leaving thousands of Americans to wonder how things might be different for black people today had he lived to lead the fight.
What would King say about the current economic conditions facing African-Americans? One can only speculate, observers say.
“We are in the worst shape economically than we have ever been in,” Omilami said of African Americans’ current plight in America. “I don’t know what Dr. King would say now.”