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MLK "Dreamed" of Economic Equality

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Known most for his inspired leadership during the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a fierce advocate for economic equality. Prior to his assassination in 1968, Dr. King had focused his leadership efforts on economic justice and equality.

From today’s San Jose Mercury News: “Michael Honey, a historian who chronicled King’s campaign for economic justice in two books, said the civil rights leader’s fateful trip to Memphis was undertaken to improve job security and pension benefits. ‘And on that score we haven’t moved very far forward,’ Honey said. ‘The assault now on public employee unions is directly hitting the black middle class.’

Though King’s eye was on the prize of civil rights until 1965, he began writing and speaking to union groups about the tyranny of poverty long before that. ‘What he says in those labor speeches is that the civil rights movement was the first phase of the freedom movement,’ Honey said. ‘In fact, he saw that as a down payment. His basic point was that the idea of equality in the Declaration of Independence was not just about civil rights. It was about everybody having an equal chance.’”

Dr. King believed that gaining basic civil rights for African Americans was simply the beginning, a down payment, and that gaining equal economic opportunity was the ultimate goal. Still, forty-four years following his death “economic justice remains elusive for many Americans. While poverty gradually declined in the decades since King’s death – 32.4 million Americans lived below the threshold in 1986, the year the King holiday was first celebrated – the numbers have climbed in recent years as the economy soured. Today, as the nation celebrates MLK Day for the 27th time, 46.2 million of its people have slid into the misery that King spent his final years fighting, with blacks experiencing the highest [poverty] rate of any group: 27 percent. . . .

‘In some ways, things are worse than when Martin was alive,’ said Clayborne Carson, founding director of the King Institute at Stanford University. ‘If he was concerned about the distribution of wealth in 1968, the lack of opportunity for poor people and the lack of commitment to eliminating poverty as a social problem at that point, it seems obvious that those issues have become more pressing today.’”

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