Over 40 years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, his words still speak to the social conditions that so many Americans face. Our unemployment rate is hovering at 10 percent, and the wealthiest 10 percent of us control over 70 percent of the nation's wealth. Economic inequality remains a barrier to greater racial equality. The national commemoration of King's birthday, therefore, is more for reflection than celebration.
During one of the worst economic crises seen in this country, black/white economic inequality is still a vast and greatly under-recognized challenge for this country. Two generations past the 1960s civil rights movement, African Americans make less than 60 cents on every dollar of income for whites. Their unemployment rate stands at 150 percent of the national average.
As King fought to end this country's racial divisions, he recognized that economic inequality was as great a barrier to his vision of a more racially inclusive America as Jim Crow segregation laws. Many forget that the March on Washington, where King delivered his famed "I Have a Dream" speech, was actually called the "March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs." When one of the last great symbols of political hope, President John F. Kennedy, was in the White House, King called hundreds of thousands to come to the nation's capital to fight for an America that would reflect its best values rather than its greatest fears. "We called our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income because we felt that the economic question was the most crucial that black people, and poor people generally, were confronting," he told Look Magazine in 1968.
In 2010, after the first challenging year of the presidency of another man who came into office riding a wave of hope, Americans can honor King's legacy by advancing a contemporary agenda of jobs, wealth building, and peace.
King and other civil rights leaders advocated progressive economic reforms with such proposals as the Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged and the Freedom Budget of 1966. A new report from United for a Fair Economy that I co-authored builds on that work by advocating bold and progressive economic reforms to meet today's challenges. Reforms proposed in this report, titled "State of the Dream 2010: Drained," include a major jobs creation program, strong investment in job training, an equity assessment of federal spending, and returning the tax system to one where those with the most concentrated wealth provide greater investment in the public good.
A rededication to King's vision can redirect the United States back to the path of greater equality, and a stronger economy for the middle and working classes. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't believe in the trickle-down philosophy that has run our economy for the past three decades. Instead, his "liberation theology" analysis called for siding with and addressing specifically the challenges of the most disenfranchised to advance society as a whole.
History witnessed this strategy's success with the results of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. All Americans--women, immigrants, the disabled, the elderly, the young and the poor--benefited from the vast social programs and protections that resulted from that struggle. As the nation continues to heal from an economic and financial crisis caused by unregulated greed, we'll find racial inequality unchanged and overall economic inequality at unprecedented heights. It's time to finally make a unified thrust to bridge racial and economic inequality.