Forty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., several black economists are marking the anniversary of his death with a renewed call to embrace King's proposals about how to reduce poverty and inequity in this country. Steven Pitts, labor specialist with the University of California-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, and William Spriggs, chair of the Howard University Department of Economics, released a report on the subject yesterday, "Beyond the Mountaintop: King's Prescription for Poverty." As they say in the report, King talked about reaching a "promised land" of social and economic justice, today "we seem to be paralyzed outside the gates of the city."
In the report, Spriggs and Pitts advance three specific proposals for reducing poverty: stronger anti-discrimination laws and enforcement of those laws, elimination the barriers to unionization, and an effective minimum wage. These are the same policy initiatives that King advocated in order to address the power imbalance between workers and employers, and provide better opportunities to African Americans and the working poor of all colors. And though King was an adamant supporter of these public policy measures to address disparity, rather than charity or social safety net programs alone, it is not a part of his legacy often discussed. Exactly a year before his death, King gave a speech at Riverside Church in New York, in which he laid out some of these ideas:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many
of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
As Pitts and Spriggs point out in their report, today high unemployment and low wages continue to plague African Americans at disproportionate rates. The minimum wage was higher in 1968 than it is today when adjusted for inflation and between 2001 and 2006 the median income for black men actually fell. The unemployment rate for black Americans is 7.9 percent today, higher than it was in 1969. Between 1964 and 1969, the number of black children living in poor families was nearly halved. But it remained stagnant for the next 27 years, and has improved little since then. The stats the researcher bring forward point out that while the civil rights protections and social programs set up in the 1960s were positive advances, they haven't been able to end the economic oppression of African Americans:
Dr. King’s call for the dismantling of structural racism is as urgent today as it was in 1968, and today the burden of racism is matched by the strain of an economy that fails to reward workers regardless of race -- as productivity has risen while the wages of workers have failed to keep up with the cost of living. What is needed then is much more than safety-net programs -- effective public policy and greater political organizing are needed to counter both the effects of discrimination and the greedy, unbalanced distribution of wealth upwards, in order to restore a sense of shared prosperity.
As we mark the 40th anniversary of King's death, it seems like an appropriate time to call attention to all the work that still needs to be done to bring us to that promised land he spoke of.