The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. The march was organized to support proposed civil rights legislation and end segregation. An often-overlooked element of King’s social platform was the clear, persistent call for economic justice for all people, regardless of race. (AP photo)
NEW YORK — The focus of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 wasn’t what had been accomplished — but rather his view of what still needed to be done.
More than four decades later, King scholars say he would take the same approach at this historic moment — the inauguration of the first black president at a time when the nation is facing its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The crisis could widen the already large financial gaps between whites and blacks and make it more difficult to attain King’s dream of economic equality in America.
“I believe that Dr. King would caution us not to rest on the election of a black president and say our work here is done,” said Kendra King, associate professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.
Although King is best known for his civil rights work, he was a staunch advocate for economic justice. In the months before he was killed, he had been working on the Poor People’s Campaign and calling for an economic bill of rights. When he was assassinated in 1968, he was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike.
“Economic empowerment and justice was always a part of Dr. King’s purpose,” professor King said. “Civil rights without economic parity is still imprisonment.”
While the election of Barack Obama is a huge step toward King’s dream of a time when people are judged on the content of their character and not their skin color, economic data shows racial disparities are still pervasive when it comes to financial equality.
From unemployment rates to wages to household income to home ownership rates, the differences are stark. For example, while white unemployment was at 6.6 percent in December, black unemployment was 11.9 percent. For black men, it was even higher, at 13.4 percent.
Going beyond those simple statistics, studies show that economic mobility and the passage of wealth from one generation to another is more of a reality for whites than it is for blacks.
A report from the Economic Mobility Project that looked at income data over time found that black children were less likely than their white counterparts to earn more than their parents did. And being born to middle-class parents did not offer the same protections to black children as it did to whites. Among children whose parents were in the middle of the income scale, 45 percent of black children fell to the bottom of the income scale as adults, while only 16 percent of whites did.
“Many more blacks experience poverty, many fewer experience affluence,” said Mark Rank, a professor of social work at Washington University who studies poverty and economic inequality.
And in tough economic times like these, people who are more vulnerable have more to lose, said Charles Gallagher, professor of sociology at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
“The black middle class is precarious compared to the white middle class,” he said.
“I think it will have some long-lasting effects,” Rank said of the current economic woes. “It’s taken a long while to reduce some of those racial differences so this is just going to set that back.”
Fritz Jean, a 26-year-old college student and retail employee in New York City, has firsthand experience with economic disparity.
The new father wants better for Quincy Zachariah Jean, born earlier this month; better than the schools he feels didn’t prepare him for college the way his suburban white counterparts at the State University of New York’s College at Old Westbury seem to be; better than living in the small apartment he grew up in that he now shares with his mother and girlfriend.
“You want to own property, you want to have something to leave for your family, but you have to get that and to get that is already an uphill battle,” he said.
He commutes up to four hours a day to school, trips that eat into the money he earns and take away from the hours he could work. He can’t afford to take on the unpaid internships that other, more affluent students can, internships that make a difference in getting a job in radio, his career choice.
“I do want to pay my dues, but I need to be able to pay my bills,” he said.
The tough economic times are adding to his worries.
“My concern is making sure I get out of school and can find a job. It’s really hard … when you know that last year alone so many jobs were lost,” he said.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Me taking all these loans, I could still end up working at Ikea.”