As America commemorates Martin Luther King’s legacy, expect repeated clips of “I Have A Dream.” But most folks have forgotten the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” where Martin spoke, was as much a labor rally as a civil rights protest.
A. Philip Randolph, head of the biggest black union in the country, conceived the event. The money that paid for King’s microphone came from the United Auto Workers, enabling the orator to remind listeners that, a century after legal emancipation, African Americans still lived on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Owing her citizens justice, the United States had instead given people of color a bad check—one marked “insufficient funds,” King said.
Unfortunately, little has changed. A recent report on the nation’s growing gap between rich and poor showed that African American women have a personal net worth of just $5 for every $40,000 owned by their white counterparts, a shocking statistic based on U.S. government numbers. Jobless rates for Latinos hover at thirteen percent and for blacks at sixteen percent, minorities whose children are roughly three times more likely than white youngsters to live in poverty. Foreclosures and layoffs have devastated what little savings these families possessed.
Yet as Congress convenes in Washington and state legislatures gather, budget makers are likely to cry “insufficient funds” when faced with bills for education, health care, public transportation, affordable college tuition and other programs poor and working people rely on for survival. Despite a black President in the White House and an Hispanic governor in New Mexico’s Round House, the temptation will be strong to balance the books on the backs of those who can least afford it.
The biggest deficits we face are moral rather than financial, as King warned, who prophesied shortly before his death that “we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”
"On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
Today he might add that a country where a young black man has a greater chance of going to prison than attending college needs restructuring. An economy where Warren Buffet’s secretary pays taxes at a higher rate than her billionaire boss needs to change. More and more Americans are teetering on the edge of destitution, just a pink slip or emergency room visit away from hunger and homelessness, while bonuses return to Wall Street and CEO salaries soar. Meanwhile, our nation spends more on war and armaments than the rest of the world combined. We are at a tipping point where, in Dr. King’s words, a “revolution of values” is in order.
Until then, his rhetoric remains an uncashed promissory note. And as ordinary Americans watch the “vast ocean of material prosperity” of the 1960’s recede like an outgoing tide, their elected representatives call for further belt-tightening and cuts to social welfare.
Are America’s vaults of opportunity really empty? Or do the coffers just need to be equitably distributed? The United States has unmatched resources, enough to guarantee every worker a living wage and dignified retirement, every child the schooling they need and a clean environment to grow up in. Only poverty of imagination keeps us from sharing in the Dream.
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