Economic equality: The unfinished King agenda

Irv Randolph | 1/4/2014, 10:28 a.m.
Martin Luther King, Jr’s fight for economic equality is an overlooked part of his legacy.

Martin Luther King, Jr’s fight for economic equality is an overlooked part of his legacy.

King and other civil rights leaders were more than dreamers they were pragmatic men and women who connected economics to full equality.


Irv Randolph

The complete name of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., showed that King and other civil rights leaders understood the importance of economics.

Although full economic equality remains elusive for many there has been tremendous progress in civil rights since the historic 1963 March on Washington.

According to the National Urban League’s State of Black America report, 75 percent of black adults had not completed high school 50 years ago, compared with 15 percent of black adults today. There are now 3.5 times more blacks aged 18-24 enrolled in college, and five times as many African American adults who hold a college degree.

Thousands of African-Americans have been elected to office and there has been a significant rise of the African-American middle and upper class. In addition to the gains for African Americans, the civil rights movement also opened doors for Latinos, women, gays and others.

However, the civil rights movement was also an economics struggle which remains unfinished.

President Barack Obama noted the importance that King placed on economics when he urged thousands gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in August, to become modern-day marchers for economic justice and equality.

Obama said economic justice is the “great unfinished business,” of the march.

“The men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea,” Obama said. “They were there seeking jobs as well as justice. Not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?”

Before his death, King had become increasingly outspoken on economic issues.

King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference formed the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. They planned a multiracial march on Washington, D.C. to call for an economics bill of rights for the poor while demonstrations took place around the country.

The Poor People’s Campaign fell shortly after King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, while helping to lead sanitation workers on strike.

There is still work to be done both on the community and government policy level to complete this unfinished agenda of the freedom movement.

On the community level, the challenge today is increasing parental involvement and improving student motivation. The dangerous and self-limiting idea that African American young people who are studious are “acting white,” must be confronted and corrected whenever it arises. African American students must be taught that blacks have a long and proud history of valuing education from ancient Africa, through slavery up to today.

Parents must ensure their children are academically prepared in math and science for the growing opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Some of these jobs require four-year college degrees and some require technical training for the growing high-paying jobs in energy and light manufacturing.

While overall, the standard of living for African Americans has improved significantly, mainly due to better access to educational and employment opportunities, blacks still lag behind whites in employment, income and home ownership.

For African Americans to compete and meet the new challenges of the 21st Century will require increased attainment of education and skills, increased business ownership, stronger families and stronger cultural and educational institutions.

On the government policy level we must demand that lawmakers support policies to adequately fund public education, maintain society’s social safety net programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and full employment policies.

“Wages have stagnated for low and middle income households while corporate profits and stock prices have skyrocketed,” says Roberton Williams in Forbes magazine.

The income inequality gap is a result of intentional policies on unfair trade agreements, deregulation, taxation that favor the rich and other economic policies. Lawmakers must fight for economic policies to reduce income inequality and poverty.

Irv Randolph is the editor and publisher of South Jersey Journal.