At the dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, at least two speakers -- the Rev. Bernice King, Martin Luther King's daughter, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of King's lieutenants -- reminded us that at the end of King's life he was planning the Poor People's March on Washington, D.C.
The Poor People's March is an ancestor to the current Occupy Wall Street movement that we see breaking out across the globe today. The idea was to bring poor people from across the color line -- white, black, brown, red, yellow -- to Washington to call attention to the importance of economic justice. King understood that economic justice -- distributive justice -- was not a matter of race in the United States.
It was true then, and it is true now that African Americans and Latino/as suffer disproportionately from income inequality. But it is important to remember that people of all colors suffer from the corrosive effects of income inequality. Some of the poorest communities in the country are European American. The poorest states in the United States with some of the worse educational and health care outcomes are states in the former confederacy.
Income inequality has increased since 1968. So the question that insists upon being answered is this: Why has income inequality worsened between 1968 and today?
There are many reasons for this including the decline of the unions and of the real value of the minimum wage. I think, however, that we ought also to consider our national failure to catch King's vision of the power of a multi-racial coalition that includes people of all classes and religions to address the necessity of economic justice.
Too many people looked at the Poor People's March, the farm workers led by Cesar Chavez, The Black Panther Party, the American Indian, Women's Liberation, LGBT Rights, and Anti-War Movements and saw a radicalism that they thought did not speak to their own lives. It appeared strange to their own personal reality. Politicians and pundits interpreted the times in the most cynical "them vs. us" way.
Political economy became a contest between people who are like me and people who are not. It is the oldest rhetorical trick in the book of persuasion: Divide the world into them and us. "They" are lazy, crazy, stupid, ignorant, or evil. "We" are hard working, sane, intelligent, informed, and good. This division has led to the divisive politics that we see today. We have chosen sides, and we root for our team with a fanatic loyalty.
It has lead to the demonization of unions and an attempt to pit public sector unions against tax payers, as if teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and others do not pay taxes. It has led to resentment between people who have union wages and benefits and those who do not. And while people at the bottom continue to vote for legislators who pass "right to work" laws, the rich get richer and the poor poorer, and the middle class slowly melts away.
In Matthew 22:37, 39, Jesus taught: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . Love your neighbor as yourself."
Our neighbor is not only the person who lives next door. Our neighbor is every human being, because we all carry the image of God in us.
Our neighbor is us.
We all need and want the sustenance and joy of life.
When we see the other who seems so different we ought to ask: What do we have in common?
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.