Remembering MLK’s Call for Economic Justice

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

Photo credit: Marion S. Trikosko, 26 March 1964, Wikimedia Commons

Today is Martin Luther King Day, a day to celebrate civil rights activists who paved the way for racial justice. It’s also a day to reflect deeply and honestly on what remains undone and what we still need to do to fight for racial justice and economic equity.

Current narratives have watered down Dr. King’s legacy. Too often his world-famous speeches urging direct action are reframed in a way that depicts him as a safe, passive person. These portraits of Dr. King subvert and conceal his urgent and clear call outs of white supremacy violence against Black people in the U.S. and his call for long overdue justice and equity.

This MLK Day then gives us the opportunity to truly consider what our society would look like if Black livelihood, safety, and economic well-being were finally valued and guaranteed. These times of living in economic crisis, among unrestrained white supremacy, and with a deadly pandemic make glaringly clear the necessity of a comprehensive examination of every existing injustice and inequity.

In particular, Dr. King consistently shed light on the extreme dangers of economic inequality. Pointing out the hypocrisy of “right-to-work” laws that were being used to bust unions and take away collective power from working people, in 1961, he said, “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights… Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights… We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.”

It is easy to imagine what he would say now about a movement that seeks to turn back the clock on the gains we have achieved so far under the banner of “making America great again.”

Dr. King centered labor rights and economic justice throughout his leadership, from the beginning with the 1962 March for Jobs and Freedom up until his final days when he spoke out for Memphis sanitation workers rights.

Much like the white supremacist backlash we witnessed on January 6 as rioters stormed the Capitol, the violence Black Americans experienced in the civil rights era reflected both the ills of racism and economic injustice targeting Black and brown people in America. Anti-Black violence swells during economic crisis. That was true during the Great Depression when unforgivable lynchings surged in numbers. Sadly, that remains true today.

But the cause of the recent insurrection is not solely, or even primarily economic. Those who stormed Congress, smashing windows and carrying confederate flags and other symbols of hatred, were not only people seeking to place blame for their own economic misfortune. Some flew to the capitol in private jets to the rally and, tragically, some law enforcement, and military officials—people with economic means—joined in. Economic rage is a convenient but ultimately wholly dishonest explanation.

Racism is at the core of most of the country’s problems, economic and otherwise. Racial justice, Black and brown livelihood, and the national harmony Dr. King dreamed of starts with healing economic inequity. Dr. King gave us all a blueprint for that work: we must fight for the rights of Black and brown people who have the least access, historically and today, to jobs, safety nets, intergenerational wealth, and basic economic livelihood. Partial measures will not suffice.

As Dr. King so aptly said, “This social revolution taking place can be summarized in these three little words “all”, “here”, and “now”.

Dennis Parker, Executive Director NCLEJ