Forty Years Later, Still Far From the Mountaintop

“You know, Jesus reminded us in a magnificent parable one day that a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor. … And I come by here to say that America, too, is going to hell, if we don’t use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty, to make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell.”

You might think those words were recently uttered by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor, hurled in the latest guilt-by-association attack against the presidential candidate. In fact, that was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., addressing sanitation workers in Memphis just a little more than two weeks before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

This is the Dr. King that the nation tends not to commemorate when we honor his birthday in January, the man who 40 years ago this week was at the side of workers fighting for fair wages and preparing to take his case for economic justice to Washington. Since that battle, his message has too often been scrubbed clean of anything that would hold the nation accountable for making racial equality an economic fact of life.

A report released today by the Service Employees International Union seeks to undo that travesty.The economic implications of King’s movement and message are explored in “Beyond the Mountaintop: King’s Prescription for Poverty,” prepared by the University of California at Berkeley Labor Center and the Howard University Department of Economics.


William Spriggs. Howard University photo.
Listen to William Spriggs,
Howard University economics department chairman, discuss what he calls the illusion of progress for African Americans 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and what a progressive economic policy true to King’s vision would look like.

That report concludes that 40 years after King spoke of a promised land of social and economic justice, “we seem to be paralyzed outside the gates of the city.” It is true that African Americans “have made amazing progress to get where we are. Black educational attainment is three times higher than in 1968, for example. Our out-of-wedlock birthrate has fallen in half. And countless positions of authority—from school boards to political offices to the boardrooms of Fortune 500 corporations—are now filled with black women and men.”

And yet, today African Americans still face what the report calls “a two-dimensional job crisis: high unemployment and low wages.” Four out of 10 black people over the age of 16 were jobless in 2006, the report notes, and 31 percent of black full-time workers earned less than $25,000. Thus, even as the education gap between black people and white people has narrowed dramatically in the past 40 years, the racial economic disparities have not.

The unemployment rate among African Americans today, 7.9 percent, is higher than it was in 1969, when it was 5.3 percent, and in 1999, when it was 6.3 percent. The median income for black men actually fell between 2001 and 2006 in inflation-adjusted terms, from $23,673 to $22,609. Childhood poverty, after being cut in half during the Great Society years of the late 1960s, is now at 32.6 percent, only slightly lower than it was in 1969 and higher than it was in 2000.

The report authors point to three factors: the erosion of civil rights enforcement under the Bush administrations, the decline in the value of the federal minimum wage as it was held to $5.15 an hour through the 1990s until it was finally increased last year (in effect, imposing a one-third cut in the bottom rung of the wage ladder from its value in 1969), and the decline in union representation from 28 percent of the workforce in 1969 to just 12 percent today.

“With weak anti-discrimination enforcement, a declining real minimum wage and falling unionization rates, Dr. King would not find it surprising that poverty rates are stubbornly high even in the face of a growing economy,” the report said.

An economic justice agenda that would address the continued economic crisis in African-American communities and would be true to the spirit of King, the report concludes, would generate full employment, fight discrimination, protect workers’ freedom of association and right to join a union, and raise the minimum wage so that it keeps pace with prices.

William E. Spriggs, chairman of the economics department at Howard University, said that the focus on pathologies in the African-American community, while it has its place, must not be allowed to distract from structural problems in the economy, such as the fact that minimum wage workers today, who make $5.85 an hour, earn a wage that would have been illegal in 1968, when it was, in 2006 dollars, $7.71.

The parable that King referenced in his speech in Memphis was of a beggar named Lazarus who did not receive help from a rich man who passed him every day. The point of the parable, in King’s mind, goes beyond the superficial message that the rich man should have shown kindness to his fellow man in need. “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace,” King said in a 1967 speech. “But one day we must come to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”

When the current economic policy debate is placed under the light of that statement, it is clearly found wanting. What we are getting from the major parties is constrained financially by the war in Iraq, which presents the same diversion of resources to an unjust war that Vietnam was for King in 1968, and constrained ideologically by fear of the conservative political machine, which has in many cases worsened America’s race and class disparities but has succeeded in deflecting blame.

Echoing King, Spriggs said that the nation needs an economic plan that doesn’t just give a few coins to beggars along the side of the road but addresses “our responsibility to build a society that would not create beggars along the side of the road.”

An America that commits itself to that ideal is an America worthy of blessing.


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