Fifty years ago today, August 28, 1963, I was an eleven year old boy. I do not recall if we had started back to school on this date but may well have. As it was, I was no more than a week or so maximum away from being a sixth grader.
I do not have any memories of Dr King’s speech (pdf) or the March on Washington. I was vaguely aware of the actions of Bull Connor in Birmingham, AL but the church bombing in Birmingham that killed the four little girls was still a couple of weeks away and we were still a year away from Freedom Summer. Little of this would have penetrated or did penetrate my consciousness in small town Kentucky.
Fast forward to the fall of 1970 and my freshman year at Western Kentucky University. At the time, Western had a required, one credit hour course, “Freshman Orientation,” that met for one hour a week for the entire first semester of the freshman year. I do not remember the name of the professor who taught my class of about forty freshmen. I could probably find his name on my transcripts if I knew where they were but it is not important. What is important is that one day, a month or so into the semester, he walked into the classroom, turned on the tape recorder sitting on the desk in the front and walked out. It was a tape of Dr. King’s speech and played entirely. Afterwards, the professor returned to the room and we spent the rest of the hour discussing the speech from the distance of seven tumultuous years.
Has Dr. King’s dream been fulfilled, fifty years later? Not hardly. And it is not just his desire for racial justice that is still lacking (as Mr Pierce points out, this has not been achieved no matter the ravings of people such as those at The National Review.) And contrary to the desires of one Jonah Goldberg, Dr King’s message was very much about economic justice as well as racial justice and equality. Dr. King was assassinated as he was in Memphis to support the striking Memphis Sanitation workers. Dr. King, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was the organizer of the Poor People’s Campaign. From the Poor People’s Campaign history:
The Poor People’s Campaign did not focus on just poor black people but addressed all poor people. Martin Luther King jr. labeled the Poor People’s Campaign the “second phase,” of the civil rights struggle – setting goals such as gathering activists to lobby Congress for an “Economic Bill of Rights,” Dr. King also saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its “hostility to the poor ” – appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.”
Under the “economic bill of rights” the Poor People’s Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with an antipoverty package that included housing and a guaranteed annual income for all Americans.
Yesterday’s New York Times had an opinion piece from Joseph Stiglitz where Stiglitz describes how Dr King’s speech has impacted his life in economics:
But Dr. King realized that the struggle for social justice had to be conceived broadly: it was a battle not just against racial segregation and discrimination, but for greater economic equality and justice for all Americans. It was not for nothing that the march’s organizers, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, had called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In so many respects, progress in race relations has been eroded, and even reversed, by the growing economic divides afflicting the entire country.
This is a time where the long term un and underemployed can’t find jobs because they are among the long term un and underemployed. It is also a time where nearly 40% of the highest paid CEOs from the last 20 years have been Bailed Out, Booted, and Busted.
No, Dr. King’s “Dream” is still just that – a dream. Racial equality, while improved, still has miles to go to be fully achieved. Economic justice is only a myth these days where the bulk of new jobs being created are low wage and companies rely on employees receiving food stamps and Medicaid rather than pay decent wages with benefits.
No, Dr King’s dream is still but a dream of what can be, not even close to what is.
And because I can:
Cross posted from Just A Small Town Country Boy by Richard Taylor
Photo from David licensed under Creative Commons