On a day celebrating one of the great Americans, it might do us some good to reflect on where we are as a society relative to the issues that Dr. King fought and died for during his brief life.
Today many people will celebrate the fact that for the first time we are celebrating MLK Day with a President of color. It does say something good about our society that a Black man with an Islamic name could be elected President. But Dr. King would be the first to point out that, in many respects, our society as it relates to the human condition, has not significantly changed since the mid-1960s.
Economic Justice: “Peace is not the absence of violence. It is the presence of justice.”
Dr. King considered economic injustice as the root cause of racism and violence in the Country. How have we progressed since 1968 with regard to issues of economic justice?
Dr. King called poverty the most “debilitating form of violence”. The rate of poverty among Americans has steadily increased since 2000, and there are now more Americans living in poverty than in 1964.
The rate of unemployment among African-Americans is 50% higher than for White Americans, and the net wealth of African-Americans is 10 times less than White Americans. The economic disparity has now spread to afflict even many White Americans. As a whole, wealth in America has decreased for 99% of all citizens since 1968, with 99% of all wealth now owned by 1% of the population.
Wages for African-Americans who are employed have grown closer to those of White Americans, but only because wages for all American workers has decreased when inflation is considered. In other words, White Americans are now beginning to suffer from the same economic injustice that has afflicted African-Americans for generations: massive unemployment and the loss of wages. This is not equality, it is shared injustice.
Social Justice: “A nation that continues to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
Dr. King called the rate of incarceration of African-Americans and people of conscience in 1968 a great sin and another form of Jim Crow segregation. Today, the rate of incarceration of African-American males is much higher than even at the heights of the Civil Rights Movement, 1 of every 9 African-American males is in prison. When the other minorities and impoverished whites are considered, the prison system in the U.S. is considered by some a Gulag system with over 80% of the prison population poor or minorities. The rate of imprisonment for the poor and minorities is greater than any other country in the World, including the most repressive regimes such as China and Myanmar.
Dr. King opposed the war in Viet Nam and the “Arms Race” as immoral, and a symptom of the destructive power of the Military-Industrial Complex. Soon after Dr. King began to challenge the profits of Corporate America, he was assassinated. Now we have the never-ending “War on Terror” with trillions spent and no end in sight. What would Dr. King say about a society willing to spend trillions on wars and Wall Street bankers, but not spend a few billion to provide health care to every citizen?
While explicit expressions of racial hatred are less tolerated by our society compared to 1968, the emergence of the Tea Party, Birthers and Fox News has simply changed the words, not the bigotry of our society. One could only imagine how these elements of society would attack Dr. King and what he stood for today. Dr. King’s emphasis on economic justice as a predicate for peace and prosperity would surely put him in the crosshairs of these hateful people.
In this country, Dr. King was most known for his advocacy of civil rights. But to most of the world Dr. King was fundamentally an advocate of human rights. He spoke out on issues of the rights of all human beings to peace and security, to food and a living wage, to fair and equal treatment under the law – he spoke to principles of his own Christianity that were relevant to people of any race or creed. He also professed to be an American patriot who cared deeply about his country. He is the quintessential definition of a true patriot – a man willing to die to make his country live up to its ideals.
Finally, what would Dr. King say to President Obama, if he were alive today?
“A true leader is not a searcher for consensus, he is a molder of consensus.”