MLK's Fight for Economic Justice

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is located in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C.
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is located in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C.

In his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set out his vision of a better world. That vision included a world free of prejudice, where, in his words, people "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." And that vision went further.

Dr. King believed strongly in -- and struggled for -- worker security, economic equality and social justice more generally. Indeed, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee where he had gone to support sanitation workers who were on strike for decent wages, safer working conditions and the recognition of their union. For weeks before his death, he spent time planning a Poor People's March on Washington.

Three years before his assassination, he gave a sermon in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia, in which he said:

[In the 1963 'I Have a Dream' speech,] I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare; I've seen it shattered... I've seen my dream shattered because I've been through Appalachia, and I've seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty. And I'm concerned about white poverty as much as I'm concerned about Negro poverty.

So yes, the dream has been shattered, and I have had my nightmarish experiences, but I tell you this morning once more that I haven't lost the faith. I still have a dream... I still have a dream this morning that truth will reign supreme and all of God's children will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. And when this day comes the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.

King believed strongly in the dignity of all of us. He understood the importance of adequate housing, freedom from hunger, full employment rewarded with living wages. As many of us fight today for an increase in the minimum wage, an end to job discrimination, including that based on sexual orientation, full employment, and an end to poverty, we are continuing the struggle for which Dr. King gave his life.

My own energy is focused primarily on the fight for an expanded Social Security. Though King never spoke about that program, the values that it embodies are his values and beliefs - that it is our birth right as human beings to have dignity, economic security, that we are all connected, sharing the same risks and benefits.

There were many in King's world who sought to divide us. Their spiritual heirs are with us today. In my own area, they tell us that benefits for seniors are harming our children. They tell us that benefits of those with disabilities are harming seniors. They claim that Social Security is unfair to African Americans who, on average, have shorter life expectancies.

In our forthcoming book, Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All, my co-author, Eric Kingson, and I explain why none of those charges about Social Security are true. The charge about African Americans is particularly outrageous because those making the charge appear to be doing so simply to undermine confidence is Social Security. To my knowledge, no one making that claim ever proposes universal health care, safer working conditions, or other reforms to improve life expectancy.

The reality is that Social Security embodies the truth, understood so well by Dr. King, that we are strongest together. On this anniversary of the birth of Dr. King, let's all pledge to continue his struggle for justice and equality, for economic opportunity and worker security for all. For my part, I will continue to fight to expand Social Security for all generations.