When Martin Luther King Jr. gave the sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington on March 31, 1968 to highlight the Poor People's Campaign he was organizing for later that spring, unemployment was hovering just under 7 percent -- for African Americans. The nationwide average was under 4 percent.
Last week the Labor Department reported unemployment rates that were more than double that -- 9.4 percent nationally; 15.8 percent for African Americans.
It is sobering to remember that King was working to mobilize a demonstration in Washington of thousands of low-income and unemployed people that critics feared would paralyze the city in response to economic conditions that in some ways are better than what Americans face today. In 1968, fewer than 14 percent of Americans were living in poverty; in 2009, that percentage was 14.3 percent. Yet King saw conditions dire enough to call for "dramatic nonviolent action to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible."
Numbers like these don't tell the full story of the difference between the struggles of low-income people and African Americans in the late 1960s and today. But the fact remains that the economic disenfranchisement that King saw in 1968 moved him and others to stage a grassroots showdown in Washington. Imagine what King might have already organized had he been alive to see the effects of the conservative economic policies of the past decade that have devastated people across lines of race and geography.
Today, 6.4 million Americans have been out of work for 27 weeks or more; 2 million have exhausted a total of 99 weeks of unemployment benefits and have no resource for more aid as they wait for the economy to improve. There is one estimate that the number of "99ers" will increase by an additional 4 million in 2011. The economy would have to grow fast enough to produce 334,000 new jobs a month just to employ these 99ers.
But almost no one believes that the economy will be able to generate that much growth on its own anytime soon, and few people in Congress are willing to sail against the prevailing political wind that says the federal government should just stand back and watch from the sidelines.
In the National Cathedral sermon, King observed, "We read one day, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.' But if a man doesn't have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists."
Jobs should be the first order of business of the 112th Congress. But when the new, Republican-led House of Representatives goes back to work on the week of January 18 its first agenda item will be the repeal of health care reform. Notwithstanding the labeling of their action as the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act," not one job will be created or saved by the House vote. (Likewise, there is no substance to the claim that the health care reform law is "job-killing.")
The focus for both parties will then quickly turn to budget-cutting and a showdown over the lifting of the debt ceiling. Absent from the discussion would be the most important action that Congress could take this year: a multibillion-dollar program of direct spending on jobs, one that would immediately put people to work on the myriad jobs that need to be done, from paving streets to staffing public libraries.
Today's political wisdom says that's not practical, especially in an age of trillion-dollar deficits. King had an answer to the critics of his day who said that it was too much to ask the nation to take care of its citizens while it was spending millions upon millions of dollars to kill the citizens of Vietnam. "On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?"
It is right to elevate the plight of today's unemployed and demand that they be given jobs. We should not accept the constrictions on today's political debate, which limits our horizons to variations of the discredited conservative notion that giving business what it wants -- few rules to follow and even fewer taxes to pay -- will lead to a revitalized middle-class America, when in fact we've already done this for more than a decade and what we have gained is a shrinking middle class caught in a race to the bottom.
As King did in 1968, we face an America that is spending $171 billion this fiscal year alone on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To extend the Bush-era tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, those who have rebounded quickly from this country's financial crisis, Congress voted to add $68 billion to the budget deficit a year for at least the next two years. Why should we not ask our government to spend $100 billion on a program, along the lines of the Local Jobs for America proposal that Congress failed to pass last year, that would put 1 million people to work on the jobs that will provide vital services and prepare the ground for a broadly shared private sector revival?
There are, in fact, members of Congress -- leaders in the House Progressive Caucus and allies in the Senate -- who know that there must be a few voices in Congress willing to fight for the unemployed and for the policies that will get them good jobs in the short- and the long run. All they need is encouraging from a grassroots movement that dramatizes the continuing plight of the unemployed pushes the policy debate beyond its current limits.
In his Poor People's Campaign speech, King said a march on Washington is necessary "because it is our experience that the nation doesn't move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action."
With a conservative Congress in the name of deficit reduction seeking to box President Obama into making choices that would stymie the economic growth and job-creation we need, we could use a massive, dramatic confrontation on behalf of the more than 27 million who are unemployed or underemployed today. The spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. would certainly be in its midst.