By Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program
The fact that Martin Luther King seems like an increasingly distant historical figure is only partly explained by the relentless passing of time. The rest can be explained by the limited way in which his life and work is often described. King is most frequently linked with his protests against segregated buses and lunch counters and other examples of apartheid that seem far removed from the present era, a time when an African American occupies the nation’s highest office.
Any complacency about society’s success in addressing the most obvious forms of discrimination is unwarranted. In fact, significant parts of King’s dream remain unrealized and seldom commented upon. Throughout his struggle, King emphasized economic inequalities in American society. In his “I Have a Dream Speech” he railed about the fact that, a hundred years after emancipation, African Americans still lived “on a lonely island of poverty.” He complained that the passage of a century did not change the fact African Americans “still languished in the corners of American Society.” On the day he died, he was protesting the mistreatment of Memphis sanitation workers, a mistreatment that was in part economic.
What would the Martin Luther King who was concerned with economic justice make of the fact that, in a period of general economic crisis, African Americans are hit twice as hard, enduring an unemployment rate twice that of the nation as a whole?