Monday, January 16, 2012

King Had a Dream. Do we?

Freedom and Economic Justice: Rev. Martin Luther King's Unfinished Agenda

Richard G. Malloy, S.J., Ph.D.

In October of 1967, Rev. Martin Luther King spoke at St. Joe's in Philadelphia. In that speech, given just six months before he was assassinated, King stated, "Our goal is freedom. And I still have faith that we are going to get to that goal." The freedom King was speaking of that day was not simply racial equality. He was also speaking about economic justice. In his address, King spoke of the relative ease with which lunch counters had been desegregated, while he noted that it was proving much more difficult to eradicate the ghettos of the large Northern cities.

Earlier that year (August 1967) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, his home church, King delivered a sermon entitled "Where Do We Go from Here?," in which he directly articulates many of the themes of economic justice he would touch upon later in October in his talk. King argued:

"When the constitution was written, a strange formula … declared that the Negro was sixty percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare that he is fifty percent of a person. Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one half those of whites. …half the income… twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant mortality among Negroes is double that of whites and there are twice as many Negroes dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population."

Note in the above quote, Rev. King putting to good use the methods of analyzing society he learned as an undergraduate Sociology major! What he was talking about near the end of his life was the simple truth that freedom and economic opportunity and equality were more than linked. You cannot have one without the other. Freedom and economic equality mutually condition one another.

Today, almost fifty years since the iconic "I Have a Dream Speech", some progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go. The median net worth of whites is ten times greater than that of African Americans.

Source: Pr
of. G. William Domhoff’s websitee. (accessed Jan 16, 2012)

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that median household income in the USA is $49,445. Median household income of whites ($54,620) is almost one third greater than that of Blacks ($32,068). And despite sincere efforts on so many levels, overt, vile racism is still evident in our society. Go to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website ( and see the virulent racism that still exists among us.

What would have happened if King's ideas were heeded? In his 1967 Atlanta speech, Rev. King called for the eradication of poverty in our midst. He proposed a Guaranteed National Income, an idea articulated at that time by John Kenneth Gailbraith and even championed by Richard Nixon a few years later. In 1967, it would have cost $20 billion for a Guaranteed National Income, about what we spent to put a man on the moon, and $15 billion less than the $35 billion we were wasting on the War in Vietnam. What would our country and the world look like today if poverty has been systematically eradicated thirty-five years ago?

In Martin Luther King, Jr., God sent us a prophet. The prophet spoke in our midst. And we have not yet heeded his message. The shortest verse in the Gospels is "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). There, Jesus is crying over the death of his friend Lazarus. I wonder what Jesus' reaction is to our society's inability/refusal to enflesh in law the principles of freedom and economic Justice, the principles for which Martin Luther King died at the young age of 39 years? Is Jesus weeping again? Maybe. Or maybe Jesus is calling us to Keep the Dream Alive, and bring to fruition the Dream of Rev. King. On that hot sweltering day in August 1963, King spoke of hope and healing, justice and joy.

“In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note…. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice” (MLK, “I Have a Dream” Speech, 1963)

King had a dream. Do we?

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