Few people recall that Dr. King was in the throes of planning a national Poor People’s Campaign, calling on the nation to “take some definite and positive action to…provide jobs and income to the poor,” when he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. He had just spoken in Memphis in support of local sanitation workers who were advocating for improved working conditions in the face of incidents that had literally killed some of their colleagues, as a result of inadequate worker safety protections.
Dr. King spoke often of the intimate link between full civil rights and economic opportunity. He said that it was not enough to fight to sit at a lunch counter if you could not afford the hamburger and milkshake sold there. He urged us to understand the dignity of all work, and recognize the significance of every task by doing it well, while treating one another with respect.
Taylor Branch, who chronicled Dr. King’s life in three well-researched books, observed in an interview rebroadcast this past weekend the subtleties of Dr. King’s last, deeply moving speech when he spoke of ”going to the mountaintop”, and “seeing the Promised Land”, but knowing he might not be there with us.
Branch noted that Dr. King had spoken many times of the risk that he would not be able to carry on because he received frequent death threats. But in this final speech, Dr. King may have been conveying a more nuanced message. He was not going to be here to see the specific results called for by the Poor People’s Campaign because, perhaps even more than the struggle for basic civil rights, that would take far beyond even a long lifetime to realize.
Toward the end of his life, Dr. King broadened the thrust of his message to explore themes related to American foreign policy, and exclusion of too many from the fruits of the nation’s economic engine and wealth. His call for a Poor People’s Campaign began to unite the struggle for civil rights with a broad, multi-racial effort aimed at the core of inequality: the huge economic divide that was already apparent in the 1960’s.
It is this lack of inclusion in the rewards of our economy that REDF was established to address.
Fast forward to today. As we entered the weekend celebrating Dr. King, my online feeds lit up with the outrage and controversy that erupted over the words of President Trump who, as reported by most attendees at a White House meeting, referred to African nations as “sh**hole” countries, and disparaged Haitians.
While two Republican Senators who attended the meeting reported that they did not hear what the other attendees did, what was clear and undeniable from everyone’s statements about the White House conversation was the essence of the discussion: reducing the number of people from countries that are predominantly Black from immigrating to the US, while encouraging more immigration from countries that are predominantly White. Although reports indicate that the discussion also covered the balance between family and skill-based criteria for immigration, race was clearly part of the conversation.
While the inflammatory words are offensive, the core idea of discrimination against a whole people based on their race—is exactly the kind of bias that Dr. King fought against throughout his life. It is that dehumanization of whole peoples that has been at the core of ideologies which have tragically resulted in the slaughter of millions of people of color, Jewish people, and others over thousands of years.
Senator John McCain noted the obvious and honest point that, “People have come to this country from everywhere, and people from everywhere have made America great. Our immigration policy should reflect that truth, and our elected officials, including our president, should respect it.”
As the weekend began, I also received news at the opposite end of the spectrum—an exciting initiative launched in 2016 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) with 130 other groups which elevates the work of fighting racial injustice. The Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) enterprise is leading and promoting a National Day of Racial Healing on Jan. 16, 2018.
Announcing the initiative, La June Montgomery Tabron, the new President of the Kellogg Foundation, “called on organizations nationwide – crossing all sectors, including business, government, philanthropy and media – to channel your worry and pain toward building an equitable and just society for all of our children’s future.”
And so onward we must go. By age 18, African Americans in California, as in much of the country, are two times as likely to have dropped out of high school, and seven times more likely to have been incarcerated. Although unemployment is low right now, a substantial gap between Black and White rates of unemployment persists, and the racial wage gap appears to be growing, not shrinking. A Federal Reserve report notes that education and the types of work done play a role, but disturbingly, “factors that are harder to measure—such as discrimination, differences in school quality, or differences in career opportunities—are likely to be playing a role in the persistence and widening of these gaps over time.”
Meanwhile, an American Enterprise Institute study showed that millions of people, Black and White, are on the outside of the workforce; even though REDF’s 20 years of experience creating jobs and opportunity has clearly demonstrated that many are among the most productive and loyal workers when given an opportunity to do what Dr. King called for—work hard in a context of respect.
To honor Dr. King’s call for economic justice, let’s harness the best of our country, and (I believe) the vast majority of our fellow citizens who understand that living in this great nation means we must do all we can every single day to offer its benefits—civil and economic—to all people who are here without regard to race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin.
To do any less robs us of the talent and vitality we need. It is past time to not just change the words we speak, but what is in our hearts and minds. Equal treatment, freedom, opportunity. Not for some. For all.