King delivers a speech, “The Other America,” before an audience at Stanford University on April 14, 1967:
Eugene Robinson looks back at how King, in the final weeks of his life, increasingly turned his focus to Americans plagued by poverty – “the other America”:
King explained the shift in his focus: “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
[W]hat King saw in 1968 — and what we all should recognize today — is that it is useless to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of inequality. He was planning a poor people’s march on Washington that would include not only African-Americans but also Latinos, Native Americans and poor Appalachian whites. He envisioned a rainbow of the dispossessed, assembled to demand not just an end to discrimination but a change in the way the economy doles out its spoils.
King did not live to lead that demonstration, which ended up becoming the “Resurrection City” tent encampment on the National Mall. Protesters never won passage of the “economic bill of rights” they had sought.
Today, our society is much more affluent overall — and much more unequal. Since King’s death, the share of total U.S. income earned by the top 1 percent has more than doubled. Studies indicate there is less economic mobility in the United States than in most other developed countries. The American dream is in danger of becoming a distant memory. … Paying homage to King as one of our nation’s greatest leaders means remembering not just his soaring oratory about racial justice but his pointed words about economic justice as well. Inequality, he told us, threatens the well-being of the nation. Extending a hand to those in need makes us stronger.
Max Ehrenfreud, citing Robinson’s article, remarks that “persistent economic inequality has arguably undermined some of the most important achievements of the civil rights movement”:
Legally, our schools are integrated, but in practice, research suggests they’re becoming more segregated. White and black children in kindergarten and younger are much more likely to be separated from each other than whites and blacks in the population at large, which is largely because black families still can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods with the best schools, as Emily Badger has explained. And while segregation between neighborhoods has been steadily decreasing, there are still many places like Ferguson, Mo. where the economic ramifications of decades of racially biased business practices and government policies keep low-income blacks from finding a way out.
It’s often said on Martin Luther King Day that the civil rights movement still has unfinished business, but somehow, the events of the past year seem to have made that fact especially clear.
Read the text of the speech above here.