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GUEST COLUMN: King’s forgotten legacy? The fight for economic justice

GUEST COLUMN: King’s forgotten legacy? The fight for economic justice

Slain civil rights leader sought to empower poor and working-class people of all colors.
GUEST COLUMN: King’s forgotten legacy? The fight for economic justice

For The Daily Gazette

Each January, the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission’s MLK Coalition and all Americans join together to honor the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, Jr.

In 2018, marked the 50th anniversary of that tragic day on which Dr. King’s life was taken, making this a fitting opportunity as we are in a new decade and our in critical times in our nation to reflect upon some of the most important principles that Dr. King fought for-those of liberty, peace, equality and justice for all. 

Last year marked the 90th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was born on Jan. 15, 1929.

Dr. King was dedicated to achieving his vision of civil rights for all people and his voice and words were heard by millions across our great nation and the world.

He was committed to human rights, civil rights and social justice and had a determination to follow a course of social change through non-violent means and which cost him his life for us to have the human rights and civil rights we have in America today. 

The King we rarely talk about fought to remake America’s political and economic system from the ground up.

Fifty years after he was assassinated in Memphis and celebrating his 90th birthday, I pose a question to you: How should we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? 

Dr. King has been primarily positively portrayed through his magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

King called on America to live up to its historic ideals of equal rights, in which all people would be defined by the “content of their character” and not the color of their skin. 

One major failing in how we remember King is our typing of him as a civil rights leader, the activist and pastor. However, we do not type him as a Baptist pastor, preacher, theologian and scholar.

But King offered just such an analysis.

We know him as a civil rights advocate, but he also waged a lifelong struggle for economic justice and the empowerment of poor and working-class people of all colors.

Beyond his dream of civil rights lay a demand that every person have the right to vote, adequate food, education, a decent job and income and housing. 

In the months before he traveled to Memphis in 1968 to participate in a garbage-workers’ strike and was assassinated, King had been crisscrossing the country for weeks, promoting a multi-racial coalition to pressure Congress to reallocate money from the Vietnam War to money for human needs.

In a speech dated March 10, 1968, which took place in New York City, King said:

“One America is flowing with the milk of prosperity and honey of equality and that America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and materials necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits.

“But as painfully aware of the fact that there is another America, and that other America has daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope with the fatigue of despair” 
King called it the “Poor People’s Campaign,” and it promoted an “economic bill of rights for all Americans,” which included five pillars: a meaningful job at a living wage; a secure and adequate  income; access to land; access to capital, especially for poor people and minorities; and the ability for ordinary people to “play a truly significant role” in the government. 

In 2020, when “everything decent and fair in American life” is under threat, as King also said it was during his time, we might do well to remember his fight for economic justice as part of King’s dream for a better America that was all encompassing. 

Remembering King’s unfinished fight for economic justice, broadly conceived, might help us to better understand the relevance of his legacy to us today.

It might help us to realize that King’s moral discourse about the gap between the “haves and the have-nots” resulted from his role in the labor movement as well as in the civil rights movement. 

The nation may honor him now, but we should also remember the right-wing crusade against him in his own time as he sought just alternatives to America’s exploitative racial capitalism. 

How we remember King matters.

It helps us to see where we have been and to understand King’s unfinished agenda for our own times and generations to come. 

Ang A. Morris is executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission.

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