On Monday, we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, a special occasion to honor one of America’s greatest civil rights activists and a champion for people of every social strata. While the civil rights movement burned bright with numerous lights, Martin Luther King was a comet across the sky advocating for change, equality, and fairness.
What I find fascinating about Dr. King’s life is that despite his fame and his civil rights achievements, many are unfamiliar with his fight to promote economic justice. This is foremost on my mind on this anniversary given the recent number of blogs and legislative initiatives that I have supported ranging from job creation and raising the minimum wage to advocating for veterans and the need for affordable housing.
For Dr. King, civil rights and economic justice were inexorably linked. As early as 1958, he wrote “that the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice.” Ned Resnikoff, writing for MSNBC, correctly notes that Dr. King promoted his vision of economic justice based on four pillars of reform. These are:
- Ratify an economic Bill of Rights. A draft by Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference called for legislation that would provide citizens with a right to a job, adequate education and decent housing. This Bill of Rights was his way to articulate the specific demands related to economic justice be available to all citizens.
- Guarantee everyone a basic income. Dr. King supported the idea of a guaranteed income that “must be pegged to the median income of society, not at the lowest end.” If that sounds too radical, let’s not forget that President Richard Nixon advocated a similar idea, albeit with a lower income threshold.
- Support a powerful labor movement. Dr. King spent his life not only supporting unions, but also urging them to move in a more radical, positive direction. To King, unions could be the lever that would have the greatest economic impact for the good of all workers, union and nonunion alike. With amazing prescience, he foresaw the needs of today’s unions. He noted that the labor movement, “if it is to remain vital, needs to raise the standard of living of all workers, not merely those under its contracts. As the relative number of workers in unions drops, the strength of labor will fail if it does not become a social force pressing for greater dimensions of wealth for all those who labor.”
- Guarantee a job to anyone who can work. Why would any nation, especially the United States — the world’s leading economic country — not provide a job for those willing to work? He felt that if you had a willingness to work, our country should guarantee everyone a job. Dr. King noted that “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.”
This Dr. Martin Luther King Day commemorates Dr. King’s efforts not only for civil rights, but for economic justice for all Americans. He understood a fundamental rule of society: If there isn’t a degree of economic parity, it would hamper, if not prevent, Americans from fully embracing civil rights for all citizens.
How committed was Dr. King to economic justice?
The official name of the 1963 March on Washington was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” When he gave his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, the audience consisted primarily of black sanitation workers who were fighting for their right to form a union. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was, indeed, a man for all seasons.
That’s my take, what’s yours?