When people think of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, they may not know that the complete title of the event was The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The fact is, Dr. King was as focused on economic equality as he was on civil rights. “America has defaulted on her promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” said Dr. King during the speech.
According to historians, Dr. King was very concerned that the economic gap between races could derail his Civil Rights Movement with poverty and income disparities being the ultimate segregators.
The Poor People’s Campaign was focused on providing economic rights for blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and whites. Dr. King asked the federal government for a $30 billion dollar ‘anti-poverty’ package involving a massive investment in infrastructure, job training, affordable healthcare, and a higher minimum wage–the same issues lawmakers debate today.
“It is this sense of having control of your life and having the personal financial dignity and choices to then create the reality that you want that, I think, is the issue, and we’ve never been, in that regard, in control of our own destiny. That hasn’t changed,” says Bryant.
And 50 years later, by some measures, financial disparity has gotten worse. According to United For a Fair Economy, when Poor People’s Campaign was launched in 1968, the median black family was making 60 cents for every dollar the median white family made. The Urban Institute says that number has fallen to about 57 cents, and that the average net worth of white families in the United States stands at about $632,000. That falls to $110,000 for Hispanics, and $98,000 for blacks.
While people of color are currently on the losing side of the income and wealth gaps in this country, a key concern has to be what happens in about two decades when these struggling groups become the majority and the primary drivers of the U.S. economy?
“We’ve got a shift to people of color all around the world, younger and darker. Unless we empower these folks, the world’s got a problem,” Bryant adds.
“I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” said Dr. King at his speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, hoping there would one day be an equal chance to enjoy the freedom and peace of mind that comes with economic security.
Although Dr. King did not live to do the work he planned through the Poor People’s Campaign, his wife, the late Coretta Scott King, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference tried to keep the Poor People’s Campaign alive after his passing. When they failed to get legislation passed, they closed ranks in June of 1968. A group of community activists in Chicago resurrected the Poor People’s Campaign in 2003 with the same goal of eliminating economic disparity for all classes.