One of the most powerful aspects of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is his work in economic justice and poverty. Though the landmark rally in 1963 during which King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech is now widely known as “The March on Washington,” the complete title of that event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” In fact, in the last year of his life, King was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial effort to alleviate poverty and provide guaranteed income for every citizen. King understood that without greater economic equality, racial disparities and divisions could not be overcome.
In 1967, King wrote the foreword for the Freedom Budget — a far-reaching and ambitious social proposal created by economist Leon Keyserling and The March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin. It involved massive investments in public works and infrastructure, training programs that would upgrade skills and education, employment opportunity expansion, affordable public health services, and raising the minimum wage to two dollars an hour — an amount equivalent to $13.79 in buying power today, though our federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour.
The Freedom Budget, along with many of the economic goals of the civil rights movement, never came to pass, leaving a racial economic chasm that persists to this day. Today the Freedom Budget remains startlingly relevant, emphasizing issues such as job creation, living wages, access to better health care, and wealth redistribution — relevant and urgent problems that still impair our country.
In remembering King and the legacy of the black freedom movement for which he gave his life, too often we revise history and speak as though the racism and white supremacy he fought against are now problems of the past. The truth is since King’s time, the Black unemployment rate has remained twice that of whites, and in the last three decades, racial wealth inequality has ballooned out of control. To truly honor King, we must remember that he died on the battlefield fighting for an agenda, which to this day remains unrealized. King’s dream of racial equality is still one that requires ongoing struggle to make a reality…
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