It’s Our Job To Finish Dr. Martin Luther King’s Economic Justice Work
I recently travelled to Memphis to headline an event at the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel, the place the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
While in the hotel, I pictured the trajectory of the assassin’s bullet. With deadly and unstoppable force, the single bullet hit Dr. King’s cheek, shattered his jaw, hit his spine and landed in his shoulder. It was hard to shake the experience of being in the place where he was murdered. It was even harder to reconcile that Dr. King was killed while attempting to stir up the conscience of a nation and bring relief for striking sanitation workers.
The night before his death, Dr. King delivered a prophetic speech where he critiqued the conditions of America that forced African Americans to contend daily with poverty and injustice. In his remarks, he was lifting the veil of what Black people were experiencing. He spoke a liberating and piercing truth that “the nation is sick and the land is in trouble.” He saw African Americans as the canary in the coal mine, reasoning that the Black struggle paralleled the human struggle. In his mind, the nation couldn’t really be free until all of its people were free.
Dr. King reminded the crowd that an awaking was happening in the United States and abroad among people who wanted to be free. He proclaimed a human rights revolution that required action to ameliorate poverty, hurt and neglect. He said if that did not happen, the entire world would suffer from moral failure.
His words and his vision were radical, and his message and purpose were to disrupt the status quo.
While it seemed unlikely at the time, and while he was clear that he himself might not see it, Dr. King was convinced that we, as a people, would get to the promised land. More than 50 years after his death we are farther along but still on a journey to get to the promised land. You may ask, “How will we know when we’ve arrive?” We’ll know we’re there when the notion of income inequality is a lesson in history books, or when universal healthcare and a $15 minimum wage are baseline expectations. We’ll know we’re there when politicians embrace, rather than malign the poor.
At a time when income inequality is the highest it’s ever been, I believe we are on the verge of another great awakening. The awakening is spurred by people who have been left behind by economic injustice, and it’s time for our elected leaders to hear the pleas of the people. As history would teach us, struggles for justice rarely end, they just evolve. Dr. King had a dream, but clearly we are a nation still dreaming. He dreamed of a day when our sons and daughters would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. We dream of a day where elected leaders see the humanity of all people regardless of the color of their skin or the zeroes in their bank accounts.
While he dreamed, Dr. King also took action. He wasn’t passively hoping for progress, he was working to make his dream of racial and economic justice a reality. We are obligated to continue the work. Dr. King and others gave the ultimate sacrifice. Our sacrifice is time and energy. Everyone can do something. We can run for office, we can organize in our local communities, we can push for progressive policies and we can challenge our elected leaders to continue pushing this nation to live up to our foundational creed; “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Our collective obligation is to take his memory and continue working to move our nation and world forward.
Anything less is betrayal.