Today we celebrate Martin Luther King. Not just the man himself, but everything he taught and stood for. Why do we still celebrate him 51 years after his assassination? Although, the man himself has passed away, his dreams, ideals, actions and concern for humanity lives on. Martin Luther King’s legacy lives on.
“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
In 1968, five years after his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Kings focus shifted to joblessness and economic hardship within the African American community. Dr. King was promoting new mass effort led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, known as the Poor People’s Campaign.
In one of his last sermons, King proclaimed “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” His solution was to “confront the power structure massively.” Dr. Kings solution was to mobilize thousands of Americans, on the National Mall, demand action from Congress, in nonviolent civil disobedience until their voices were heard.
Four decades later, as our country still struggles with joblessness, homelessness and increased political unrest, it is an opportune time to ask: How did the reverend approach issues like poverty, unemployment, and economic hardship? The question is what would Dr. King do?
Jobs & Equality
Long before Sen. Bernie Sanders ran for president on the platform of income gap elimination, King took up the mantle to eliminate economic inequality. In a November 1956 sermon, King said, “Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes… God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”
Unfortunately, since 1956 inequality has only grown. Dr. King also linked racial and economic injustice. In 1964, before the Voting Rights Act had passed, he stated in his Nobel Prize speech, “Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed–not only its symptoms but its basic causes.”
“Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed–not only its symptoms but its basic causes.”
King’s focus on economic justice became even sharper in the last years of his life. In his famous April 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City, King made a serious indictment of a budgetary imbalance that continues to this day: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” he said, “is approaching spiritual death.”
Guaranteed Annual Income
King advocated that the government provide full employment. “We need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted,” he wrote. “New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”
For adults who could not find jobs, King promoted the concept of a guaranteed annual income. King wrote: “We realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will.” A just response, King believed, was a guaranteed annual income “pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income.”
Was this a new concept? Not at all! The idea was actually introduced by Thomas Paine and Henry George and by the late 1960s, versions of the idea were being offered by economists including James Tobin, Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith. In some versions of the idea, enacting a guaranteed income involved expanding and restructuring existing social welfare measures. In other versions, it took the form of an annual sum that every citizen would receive unconditionally–comparable to the Alaska Permanent Fund, through which every resident receives a yearly, fixed share of the state’s oil revenues.
In a speech to the Negro American Labor Council, Dr. King said, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
What Did You Say?
In addition to the previously stated political reform changes. Dr. King had some other “radical” ideas:
- Free Lunch Counters. “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters”
- Invest $30 billion in antipoverty measures
- Enactment of guaranteed income and funding for the construction of 500,00 affordable housing unites per year.
- Protest in front of the Bethesda Naval Hospital to bring attention the the unresolved healthcare crisis.
King expressed his vision for these protests by stating, “We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’”
However, the campaigns were suddenly halted by Dr. King’s untimely assassination. Conflicts over leadership and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy further slowed the momentum.
What’s Happening Today?
On January 21, 2008, Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama participated in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day debate sponsored by CNN and the Congressional Black Caucus. Each candidate was asked whether Dr. King would endorse his or her campaign if he were alive.
Barack Obama answered, “I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us,” he said. “I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable…. I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that. It was those women who were willing to walk instead of ride the bus, union workers who are willing to take on violence and intimidation to get the right to organize…. Them arguing, mobilizing, agitating, and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable, I think that’s the key.”
Without people taking action as per Martin Luther King’s vision, a few Americans may continue to gather exponential wealth, but many others, will continue to experience financial insecurity and joblessness.
The Take Away!
What lesson have I learned from Dr. King? My financial security, career path and future outcome is dependent on the decisions that I make today. Will I sit on the sides and wait for someone to hand me opportunities or will I take the horse by the reigns and make opportunities for myself? The economy and job market is extremely competitive and it is up to me to prepare myself by ensuring that I have the tools needed to compete. What tools do I need? Education, training, a proper resume and excellent interviewing and networking skills. A little business know how will also help.
Where can I receive help in these areas you may ask? My suggestion is to stop into your local Workforce Solutions office to get started. There are people there willing to help you fill your toolbox with all the tools you need to succeed.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!
Stacey McKenzie is a member of the Texas Gulf Coast Regional team for Workforce Solutions. She specializes in providing training and education to the Gulf Coast community, career staff offices, and employers in assisting individuals with career development. She brings with her over 15 years of experience and expertise working in the nonprofit/government industry serving the New York and Houston community. She is currently seeking an M.A. in Non-Profit Management and holds a B.A in Political Science, a Certification in Holistic Health Nutrition, is a green belt in Lean Six Sigma and has several certifications in project management, executive management and leadership.