ROBINSON: MLK's vision of justice economic as well as social

WASHINGTON --As the nation honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a stirring new memorial on the National Mall, let's not obscure one of his most important messages in a fog of sentiment. Justice, he told us, is not just a legal or moral question but a matter of economics as well.

In this sense, we're not advancing toward the fulfillment of King's dream. We're heading in the opposite direction.

Aug. 28, the day organizers chose for the dedication of the King memorial, is the anniversary of the 1963 march and rally at which King delivered the indelible "I Have a Dream" speech. That event -- one of the watershed moments of 20th-century America -- was officially called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." Meaningful employment was a front-and-center demand.

The idea and impetus for the march came from A. Philip Randolph, one of the most important labor leaders in the nation's history. Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union that demanded and won decent pay and better working conditions for thousands of railroad employees, most of them African-American. By 1963, Randolph had become a vice president of the AFL-CIO labor federation.

King and his fellow civil rights leaders understood the importance of good jobs that paid a living wage -- and the social and economic mobility such jobs provide -- in forging a nation that honors its promise of fairness and equality. If he and Randolph were alive today, given the devastating blows that poor and working-class Americans have suffered, I'm confident they'd be planning a "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom II."

As an African-American old enough to remember Jim Crow segregation in the South, I'm amazed at the progress toward racial justice. We're not all the way there yet, but we're light-years from where we started.

King was a passionate advocate for economic justice, speaking not just for African-Americans but for all Americans seeking to pull themselves out of poverty and dysfunction. On this score, we haven't just failed to make sufficient progress. We've stopped trying.

With unemployment above 9 percent, what task absorbs our elected leaders? Certainly not an urgent search for ways to put people back to work. Instead, we're obsessed with deficit-reduction measures that, if applied in the short term, would destroy jobs rather than create them.

Look beyond the recession. Between the end of World War II and the end of the Vietnam War, the typical income for an American household roughly doubled (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Since then, the Economist magazine noted last year, income for a typical household rose by just 22 percent -- and even this modest increase was due to the fact that women entered the work force in large numbers. The Pew Research Center found that if you look just at men in their 30s, they earned 12 percent less in 2004 (again, inflation-adjusted) than their fathers did at a similar age.

As everyone knows by now, the top 1 percent of earners capture an increasing share of national income. The rich, without a doubt, are getting richer. The middle class and the working class are seeing their incomes stagnate or fall. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is an outrage. Food, clothing, housing and transportation on $7.25 an hour? There aren't enough hours in the week.

It's no coincidence that this massive transfer of wealth -- basically, from workers to investors -- took place at a time when union membership was in steep decline. In 1983, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20.1 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to a union. In 2010, only 11.9 percent were union members.

The result? In 2010, the median weekly pay of a male worker over 25 who belonged to a union was $982, according to the BLS. The comparable figure for a worker not represented by a union was $846.

King was assassinated in Memphis, where he was supporting the demands of sanitation workers for more pay, better working conditions and the right to unionize. The civil rights leader was increasingly focused on the economic dimension of the freedom struggle, and was planning a massive Poor People's Campaign at the time of his death.

The new King memorial is inspirational. When I visited Wednesday, the crowd of visitors was large, diverse and generally awe-struck at the memorial's simplicity and power. Once again, the great man stands in Washington to challenge our morality, our faith and our conscience.

Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. Email him at eugenerobinson@washpost.com. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/eugenerobinson.


Jan 4 years ago

Thank you. Mr. Robinson, for a well written article. With all the propaganda from the right, it is good to hear someone point out the problems that are arising from the inequities of our economic structure. I am glad that you point out that the loss of unions has helped corporations ignore with worker rights. I think it would also be good to point out how much unions have improved things for those of us that do not belong to unions. Such things as 8 hour day, 40 hour work week, health insurance through employer, safe and comfortable work environment as well as minimum wage legislation. The Republicans are openly trying to break unions. This is easier with high unemployment which makes unions members afraid to strike and more likely to accept bad contracts. I have never belonged to a union but I do recognize the good that has come from their efforts.


pj808 4 years ago

Eugene, you do know that over 47% don't pay any Federal Income Tax? Do you know the majority of those actually get a refund of a greater amount than they paid in? You want "economic justice?" Then perhaps your "culture" needs to value two-parent homes with a strong father figure and not having more children than one can support. More gov'ment money from the One isn't going to fix your problem.


FactChecker 4 years ago

Your statistic of 47% is very misleading. This includes elderly that have paid taxes all their lives but are now living on low retirement income and social security. It also includes teens with part time jobs that do not earn sufficient to have a tax burden. Then we have to also consider those laid off, currently unemployed. And the only group that should outrage you for about a significant portion of htose that do not pay and Federal Incpme Tax are earning over $1 million per year. If you want 100% of those working full time to pay taxes, then you should be in favor of increasing the minimum wage, with top executives recieving billions each in bonuses, industry can afford such an increase. You would also be against the Bush taqx cuts which increased the per child tax deduction, increasing the number that do not pay taxes because of the number of dependents. As for the "majority getting refunds greater than paid", stats do not support that statement. Please get facts straight and don't depend on your ffavorite Republican pundit to tell you the truth. Can't we at least agree that we should be more interested in getting people back to work before attempting to increase taxes on those earning below the poverty level?


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