January 18, 2014
Martin Luther King: Liberty and Economic Justice for All
As a young child, I always thought of Martin Luther King as a mythical, larger-than-life figure who gave great speeches, believed in peace, and died tragically. My parents taught me a lot about Black history, frustrated that the schools were failing to teach American history that included the stories and contributions of African Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King was at the top of their list of African Americans who did meaningful and important work. (Notably, they also taught me about Malcolm X, Ida B. Wells, Kwame Ture, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Frederick Douglass.)
Having been raised in Texas and Louisiana, they felt it was important for me to know about the effects of segregation, the bravery of the civil rights activists, and, yes, Martin Luther King. My family was recognizing and honoring Dr. King long before then-President Reagan grudgingly made his birthday into a federal holiday in 1983. When his birthday “went national”, the legacy of Martin Luther King went multicultural.
In college, I took classes on African American history that included discussions of the civil rights movement. Like many college students, I questioned and even rejected many of the ideas and principles taught by my parents. And I rejected Dr. King as a pacifist who was famous simply because he was “acceptable” to “the establishment.” In my “great” vision, I divided the world into two camps: The pacifists (led by Dr. King, Medgar Evars and others) who would “ask for” justice and equality and the activists/nationalists (led by Malcolm X, Huey Newton and others) who would demand it. Of course, I did not realize how far from “great” my worldview was! And I carried this vision through law school and my short-lived career in the law.
It was only later in life that I discovered that there was so much more to Dr. King than a person who dreamed of peace for African Americans. Dr. King was a true visionary that began his career as a Minister and ended it as an insightful man of action who believed (and demanded) justice, equality, and legal and economic fairness for all people. He transformed from an African American leader into a world leader. And that was something entirely new under the sun.
Dr. King, rightly and bravely, demanded civil rights and social justice. However, it is often forgotten that he also demanded economic justice, championed the rights of labor, transcended the dichotomy of black and white to see the bigger picture of class divisions and economic power.
In the last weeks of his life, he spoke before AFSCME stating,
Now, our struggle is genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it is not enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?
Just before his assassination, Dr. King was planning a “Poor Peoples’ March” to demand a federal plan for full employment with a guaranteed annual income and affordable housing. This went beyond the African American community, but included people of all races and ethnicities.
This was decades before the Occupy Movement. And this was also something new under the “civil rights” sun.
Yes, Dr. Martin Luther King was creating a new world order based on true and tangible equality. Perhaps I have come full circle to view Dr. King with child-like eyes filled with awe. But as an adult, wife and mother, I have witnessed and can appreciate that his great “dream” made real-life better for millions.
This great man deserves his great day. And we should continue his dream of creating a planet with liberty and (legal and economic) justice for all.