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We Can’t Forget Dr. King’s Fight For Economic Justice and Equality

As today’s celebration of  Martin Luther King Jr.’s 85th birthday inevitably focuses on his “I Have a Dream” speech, perhaps more attention should be paid to his fight for economic equality—particularly  when the country has experienced such an unprecedented increase in economic inequality in recent decades.

There will be parades and marches today highlighting King’s crucially important message of racial justice, with additional scrutiny given to a recording discovered in Tennessee in 2012 of an interview King did with a local Chattanooga man. In the tape King discussed how much credit President  John Kennedy deserved for getting him out of jail in 1960.

But there will be fewer speeches and programs dedicated to King’s quest for economic justice that he began to focus on later in his life. In the year before he was killed, King was working on the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign.

MSNBC compiled a list of some of King’s proposals to end racial inequality that have not received a great deal of media attention. They include:

1. Ratify an economic bill of rights

King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) in 1968 drafted a letter demanding “an economic and social bill of rights” that would promise all citizens the right to a job, the right to an adequate education, and the right to a decent house, among others.

The idea echoed one made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his 1944 State of the Union address, when he called for a “second Bill of Rights” that would guarantee all citizens a “useful and remunerative job” and “adequate medical care.”

2. Guarantee everyone a basic income, no strings attached

King thought each of us should have a livable income, whether or not we had a job. In fact, according to MSNBC, he called for unconditional cash transfers to every American citizen in 1968 “pegged to the median income of society, not at the lowest levels of income.”

This idea echoed one proposed by Republican President Richard Nixon, who unveiled the Family Assistance Plan to the nation in 1969, which failed in part because some on the left thought his offer of $1,600 per year for each family of four was not ambitious enough.

According to MSNBC, the nation of Switzerland will soon be voting on a referendum to guarantee every Swiss citizen a monthly check worth $2,800USD.

3. Build a powerful labor movement

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” King told the Illinois State AFL-CIO in 1965. “Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.”

4. Guarantee a job to anyone who can work

“I hope that a specific number of jobs is set forth, that a program will emerge to abolish unemployment, and that there will be another program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level,” King wrote shortly before his death.


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