Despite being known across the world, Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous moment remains largely misunderstood. The “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in 1963, and even today, it presents a profound opportunity for change: the economic prosperity of poor white, black and brown workers.
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More than a rallying cry for equality and social justice, MLK Jr. condemned “the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes”, and addressed the underlying economic inequalities shaping the Black nation. Considering the market operation of the American economy continuing to propagate unemployment and seed discrimination, this important problem remains largely unsolved. Economic disparities in modern society are pervasive and persistent, and positive action is needed now more than ever.
Dr. King's Economic Principles
Dr. King may be remembered for his big ideas, but chose his words wisely. The speech that defined his legacy was delivered on August 28, 1963, from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. More than a moment in time, however, the ideas he presented came from several earlier speeches delivered during the tumultuous civil rights movement of 1962 and 1963.
While larger society remembers his soul-stirring words on racial equality, the real core message came in the third paragraph. More than anything else, "I Have a Dream" was about righting the wrongs of economic injustice suffered by African Americans.
"In a sense, we’ve 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... Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt."
Dr. King mentioned economic issues throughout his speech, which were fleshed out in his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? He sought a sustainable economic system for the benefit of all, with full employment promoted in large part through government-created jobs: "New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available." Dr. King also recognized the stereotypes emerging from inequality, with Blacks facing fewer opportunities while labeled as "lazy" and "cheating the system."
Today, more than 60 years after this speech, equal economic opportunity is still a dream. Despite the political support, the actions recommended for economic equality were fully ignored by the white moderate. Some of Dr. King's key economic ideas were: 1. economic stability is essential to the freedom of Black people, 2. they need consistent, steady employment where they can advance, and stabilize a family, and 3. how this is achieved will inevitably be a creative solution.
"Whether the solution be in a guaranteed annual wage, negative Income tax or any other economic device, the direction of Negro demands has to be toward substantive security."
Government-created jobs are still seen by many as an unwanted form of socialism. While we have seen some positive moves towards equality in recent decades, and the ground is definitely swelling, Blacks continue to suffer due to the growing gap between the rich and poor.
Where’s Economic Justice? The Current State of Disparity
Unfortunately, income inequality has become much worse over the past 60 years, both in the United States and around the world. Wealth is more concentrated than ever, and the trickle-down economics promoted by capitalist leaders is both inefficient and deceptive.
Based on figures from the World Inequality Report 2022, the poorest half of the global population owns around CA$4,250 in purchasing power parity per adult, while the top 10% owns roughly 190 times as much. Income inequalities are also profound, with the richest 10% accounting for 52% of all income and the poorest half earning just 8.5%. The situation is particularly bad right now, with wage growth weak relative to inflation and hardworking people struggling to put food on the table.
Affirmative Action and Opportunities for Advancement
Dr. King wanted the government to eliminate poverty by giving everyone a guaranteed income. This idea is also promoted by some economists and political leaders that adhere to Modern Monetary Theory. Guaranteed income can be seen as a type of affirmative action, which is a positive act of discrimination that seeks to redress existing imbalances. Along with jobs themselves, Blacks could be given greater access to training and education programs under this principle.
Affirmative action is not the only way forward, however, with two other solutions being community education and market decentralization. With Blacks facing higher rates of teen pregnancy, incarceration, and poverty than other Americans, community-led programs are an important part of the solution. Education programs can take many forms, from general courses on Black history and culture to specific programs teaching practical knowledge and skills.
Decentralization is another potential game-changer, as economic inequalities are largely a result of hierarchical power structures. When Black communities create job opportunities from within, they can self-organize and prosper in a way that's sustainable and scalable. This is possible when you factor in the concept of allyship, which is examined in many of our blog posts.
Remember MLK Jr. believed wholeheartedly that, "Poverty is violence; unemployment is violence; lack of education and hope are violence. Non-violence, in contrast, seeks to appreciate and value the humanity and work of every person, and to build coalitions with all who seek a better life."
From top-down ideas based around affirmative action to bottom-up models of community participation, building economic strength is vital to a positive future for all. For career advancement and community allyship programs and learning experiences, please contact Tough Convos today.