The African American Dream: A Look Back At MLK’s Focus On Driving Black Economic Equality

“In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream’ Speech” has reverberated and resonated with many for generations because of its passionate lines about the effects of racism.

His focus on the government’s collective economic failings of minorities roused deep feelings that were long buried, and ushered in civil rights movement that brought about changes we still benefit from today. But one important element of the iconic speech that’s not talked about enough is its spotlight on economic inequities the Black community suffered from at the hands of the government.

Sadly, Black disenfranchisement have only become more stark U.S. in the 60 years since the speech was made.

While we have seen some progress toward civil and social justice, unemployment remains a pervasive as it currently sits at 8.1 percent. And joblessness among Black people have consistently been twice that of whites for the past six decades, according to the Pew Research Center as the American Psychological Association points out.

In King’s book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he suggests that the US labor structure encourages unemployment and idleness.

“…We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now 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. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.”

In answer to the crisis, King suggested that the government create jobs to “enhance the social good” for those people out of work, often referred to as a welfare state. These ideas lean socialist, which some disagree with, but his focus was ensuring that opportunities were equally available for all who want them.

“The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. When they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available…”

As we continue to observe and celebrate the legacy of Dr. King on his birthday and beyond, it’s important to acknowledge the full breadth of his work. Not only did he fight for racial equality, but financial as well.

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