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Why Martin Luther King’s Dream Is Still Unfulfilled
By Annie-Rose Strasser on January 20, 2014 at 9:02 am
Rather than simply celebrating the accomplishments of his life on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, this year ThinkProgress wants to take a look back at the unfinished parts of King’s legacy. While the civil rights leader changed the conversation around race and justice in the U.S., many of his goals never came to fruition.
Here’s a look at four of the things King demanded but never saw completed:
1.) A living wage. One of the demands protesters listed for the March on Washington was a minimum wage. “Anything less than $2.00 an hour,” King and his compatriots argued, fails to “give all Americans a decent standard of living.” In 2014 dollars, a $2 an hour wage would work out to about $15.27. But minimum wage is actually much, much lower — less than half of that — today. Forty-two percent of those earning minimum wage are people of color.
**2.) Desegregation.) King hoped to see the end not just of legal segregation in the South, but also of the de facto segregation that existed in Northern businesses, housing, and schools. He even toured Chicago advocating for the end of this kind of segregation, saying civil rights leaders needed to “eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.’’ But today, public schools are more segregated than they were 40 years ago. The unemployment rate for black Americans has remained above 10 percent for most of the last half a century, and black workers earn on average $22,000 less a year than their white counterparts. Black homebuyers are shown significantly fewer homes than their white counterparts when shopping for a house. Ethnic identity is still the key factor in where people reside.
3.) Fair voting. King campaigned extensively for legislation like the Voting Rights Act. And he lived to see it passed. But legislators, largely Republicans, have been working to roll back the rights protected under the VRA since its inception. Those efforts have become even more acute recently. More than half the states introduced restrictive voting legislation in 2013 alone, according to a review by the Brennan Center, at a total of 92 separate bills in 33 states. The Supreme Court also struck down a major portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, allowing states previously subject to the VRA to put voting laws on the books without federal oversight. Now a group of members of congress — including Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who incidentally established the first official Martin Luther King Day — is working to undo the damage of that decision.
4.) Unfettered unionization. King spoke out specifically about anti-union “Right to Work” laws. “[W]e must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work,’” he said in 1961. “Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us.” Over 50 years later, right to work laws are still on the books. In fact, Michigan passed its own right to work law in 2012. But King’s assessment was right: No matter their unionized status, workers in “right to work” states today earn $1,500 less a year than their counterparts, and are less likely to receive other benefits like health care and pensions.
4 Ways Martin Luther King Was More Radical Than You Thought
By Aviva Shen on January 20, 2014 at 8:54 am
Every January, Martin Luther King, Jr. is universally honored as a national hero who preached a peaceful fight against racial injustice. This saintly image is quite a departure from the kind of attacks the reverend endured over his lifetime. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover famously called King “the most dangerous Negro” and “the most notorious liar in the country” while keeping him under close surveillance. Over the years, Dr. King’s more controversial edges have been smoothed over, burying his more radical teachings.
1.) He pushed for a government-guaranteed right to a job. In the years before his assassination, King re-shifted his focus on economic justice in northern cities as well as the South. He launched the Poor People’s Campaign and put forth an economic and social bill of rights that espoused “a national responsibility to provide work for all.” King advocated for a jobs guarantee, which would require the government to provide jobs to anyone who could not find one and end unemployment. The bill of rights also included “the right of every citizen to a minimum income” and “the right to an adequate education.”
2.) He was a critic of capitalism and materialism. King was a strident critic of capitalism and materialistic society, and urged Americans to “move toward a democratic socialism.” Referring to the now iconic Greensboro Lunch Counter sit-ins, he asked, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”
King also explicitly linked the problem of capitalism with the problem of racism. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered,” he argued in a speech at Riverside Church in 1967. The reverend was very aware that this kind of challenge was even more dangerous than his work on segregation and civil rights. “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums,” he warned his staff in 1966. “You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism.”
3.) He denounced the Vietnam War. King’s harsh words on the Vietnam War alienated even his allies on civil rights, especially President Lyndon B. Johnson. Still, King continued to speak out, asserting that American involvement in Vietnam “has torn up the Geneva Accord” and “strengthened the military-industrial complex.” He also accused the U.S. of being “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” Not only was the Vietnam War morally unforgivable in King’s eyes, but it also took away billions of dollars that could be used to help end poverty in American slums. “Our national priorities are disastrously confused when we spend more than $30 billion a year upon a tragic, destructive war in Southeast Asia and cut back on the programs which deal with the most basic injustices of America itself,” he wrote.
4.) He championed Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights. King believed that the spread of family planning was a crucial tool in the fight to end poverty and racial inequality. “I have always been deeply interested in and sympathetic with the total work of the Planned Parenthood Federation,” he said in 1960. He connected reproductive justice with racial justice, noting that the impoverished African American community had “a special and urgent concern” in family planning. Because of these views, he believed access to contraception and family planning programs should be funded by the government.