Forty-two years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers demanding better wages and union representation. A leader of soaring eloquence and historic importance, King had met with presidents, traveled the globe as a hero of nonviolent resistance, and at age 35 was the youngest person awarded the Nobel Prize. But in his final hours King was in the streets walking the long road to justice with men who struggled to earn a living picking up trash.
As we pause to honor King's legacy, it's tempting to sanitize his radical call for economic justice or temper his prophetic words about war. We prefer King as an icon stored safely behind history's glass case. When his words are quoted these days, we rarely hear the righteous anger of a preacher who denounced the Vietnam War and described America as the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." We choose not to reflect on his warnings about the arrogance of American foreign policy. We avoid an honest grappling with his critique of capitalism as a system that permits "necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few."
The racism, poverty, and militarism that King shined a moral spotlight on in his time remain profound challenges. The gap between the rich and poor has reached Depression-era standards. Corporate CEOs now make nearly 400 times the income of the average worker. African Americans earn less than whites, die earlier, and are imprisoned at disproportionate rates. Even in the Age of Obama, young black men are more likely to be locked up than graduate from college, and the leading cause of death for black men under 30 is homicide. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina exposed in stark and shameful ways America's enduring racial and class inequalities. Our government has spent more than $1 trillion on the Iraq war even as our inner cities crumble and 40 million Americans live in poverty.
A new report from the Center for American Progress, The State of Minorities in the New Economy, shows how African Americans and Latinos are falling even further behind during the economic downturn. It's said that when America sneezes, black America catches a cold. While the poverty rate among whites was 8.6 percent in 2008, 24.7 percent of blacks lived in poverty. In December of 2009, the unemployment rate for white men over 20 was 9.3 percent, while 16.6 percent of black men were without work.
A report last year from the Pew Research Center found that blacks were most likely to receive higher-priced sub-prime loans that lead to foreclosures. African-Americans have now displaced Latinos as the racial group with the lowest home ownership rates.
King recognized that the next frontier of the civil rights movement required bearing witness to the scourge of poverty plaguing the richest nation in the world. His vision for a "Poor People's Campaign" bringing together a multiracial coalition united in the belief that the moral measure of any society is found in how we treat the least among us fizzled after his assassination in 1968. We must take up his call. One of King's most important contributions was his sweeping vision of what it would take to build a just society. Racism, poverty, and militarism were not isolated social ills, he understood, but related in systemic ways that required a deeper social transformation to overcome. King was not a single-issue prophet. He knew that building the beloved community required us to make connections and confront the American infatuation with individualism because our fates are tied to a "single garment of destiny."
King's challenge to a nation he loved is often hard to hear. But an honest reckoning with his words and life can help us build a new common-good movement for racial, social, and economic justice today.
John Gehring is Communications Director and Senior Writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good