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Why the Fight for Civil Rights Is a Fight for Economic Rights

Why the Fight for Civil Rights Is a Fight for Economic Rights

Detail from a commemorative diorama of the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis

My husband and I took a trip to New Orleans, returning just in time for Martin Luther King’s birthday. And so I find myself writing this on MLK Day and thinking a lot about injustice, and also about the upcoming anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

We first visited the city for our honeymoon in 2003, and fell in love with the Creole and Cajun food, the warm friendly people, the beautiful architecture, the amazing music—and then like the rest of the country, we watched the storm on television two years later, horrified as people drowned and people stood on houses and bridges and crowded into the Superdome, and as people were abandoned, and people starved, and went without medication, and went without water or basic sanitation, and people—too many people—died. For those too young to remember, just know: those twinned horrors, the storm and then the aftermath of sheer abandonment, they cannot be exaggerated.

And the majority of those people we saw on TV, those abandoned people—they were black people. Poor black people. Remember Kanye West’s infamous statement that “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people”? Not as well reported was the response by Ice Cube in a GQ interview. When asked about Kanye’s comments, and whether he agreed, Ice Cube said “I know he doesn’t care about poor people. I know that—and the majority of black people aren’t rich.”

And now, we watch (though of course, black people have been watching for years in quiet horror) as black man after young black man after young black child is killed by police. Not always, no, but too often, much too often, these are poor people. Poor black people. The kind of people rendered doubly invisible in America, and so we watch as police do things they believe they can get away with and then we watch as they do get away with them.

(Before you roll your eyes and stop reading, I promise that I am not writing one of those “white person visits black community, has superficial epiphany, goes home and writes easy essay” essays. I am white, middle-class, privileged, and I don’t claim to understand the black experience in America. I am not attempting to speak for black people. My focus here is about economic inequality and the way it is inseparable from racial inequality in this country.)

Writing this on MLK’s birthday, I have been watching the usual platitudes about King, the bland, empty praises rolled out by politicians and pundits and everyone else who would whitewash King’s legacy. And I have been thinking about how, especially toward the end of his life, economic justice became to King one of the essential engines that would lift black Americans up and would drive the country further toward true racial equality. And I have been thinking about how so many of the people praising King today would absolutely oppose any radical restructuring of our economic system; which is to say they would absolutely oppose King himself and what he stood for.

King did not believe that arc would bend toward justice all by itself. He was a philosopher (and a brilliant one) but also a pragmatist. He knew that individual empowerment stems in part from economic empowerment and that the lack of economic freedom takes away a part of the self, a basic part of what makes one human. King said that:

While living with the conditions of slavery and then, later, segregation, many Negroes lost faith in themselves. Many came to feel that perhaps they were less than human. Many came to feel that they were inferior. This, it seems to me, is the greatest tragedy of slavery, the greatest tragedy of segregation, not merely what it does to the individual physically, but what it does to one psychologically. It scars the soul of the segregated as well as the segregator. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, while leaving the segregated with a false sense of inferiority.

Even after the slaves were freed, their dehumanization and economic servitude continued. But then, King said, something happened to change that:

the coming of the automobile, the upheavals of two world wars, the Great Depression. And so his rural plantation background gradually gave way to urban industrial life. His economic life was gradually rising through the growth of industry, the development of organized labor and expanded educational opportunities.

King knew how essential economic opportunity was to the civil rights movement, to empowerment for African Americans—to a reclamation of one’s own humanity. And yet here we are today, economic progress stalled, for all working people, yes, but for no group so much as the black community in America. A new report gives us the dispiriting news that a majority—51 percent—of the nation’s children now live in poverty. The American Psychological Association has found the following effects of poverty on school-age children:

Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn.

School dropout rates are significantly higher for teens residing in poorer communities. In 2007, the dropout rate of students living in low-income families was about 10 times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (8.8% vs. 0.9%).

And unfortunately, “the academic achievement gap for poorer youth is particularly pronounced for low-income African American and Hispanic children compared with their more affluent White peers.” Disproportionate incarceration of black men also affects wage disparity and economic mobility in black communities. And concentrated poverty, or neighborhood poverty, actually drives down economic mobility. And only a very small percentage of white children live in high poverty neighborhoods, while a majority of black children do, according to Pew Research.

These facts are all too familiar and should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention—but they should also continue to shame us and serve as a reminder that can’t be overstated. We need to drill it into people’s heads that Martin Luther King Jr. was an economic progressive because he knew that was the way to real progress. He was assassinated the day after an important speech to the city sanitation workers in Memphis who were protesting terrible wages and working conditions. As Angela Davis has pointed out: “I think it’s really important to acknowledge that Dr. King, precisely at the moment of his assassination, was re-conceptualizing the civil rights movement and moving toward a sort of coalitional relationship with the trade union movement.” He believed that those who had a stake in economic equality needed to continue to pool our resources and fight the powers that be.

I work for a labor union, not just because I believe so strongly in economic equality, but because I believe so strongly in the labor movement’s longtime commitment (overall; there are obvious and embarrassing exceptions, of course) to leveling the playing field by combating racial injustice and fighting for all workers, including workers of color, on the job. Dr. King believed in the power of organized labor—in the power of the people, that is, because a union is the workers—to attain for themselves better wages and working conditions. Here is King speaking to the Illinois AFL-CIO in 1965:

The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.

And King believed that working people, fighting back, could reclaim the lost humanity of the working man—particularly the black working man. In Memphis, two workers were killed, crushed to death in the back of a sanitation truck. This was not even close to the only indignity suffered by the sanitation workers, but it was the last straw. They walked off the job and their slogan, simple and powerful, became “I Am a Man.” They were fighting for their humanity—through better wages, working conditions, and union recognition.

And I think today Dr. King would be championing the fast food workers, the retail workers, the service industry workers—many of whom are people of color, standing up for better working conditions, wages, and hours—and above all, standing up to let the powers that be know that they, too, are human beings, and deserve the dignity of good jobs. And I think he would agree that it’s high past time for conservatives and the one percent to stop uttering his name and holiday in vain, issuing vague platitudes about racial harmony and promoting MLK Day sales, while actively working to keep wages low and keep workers mired in poverty and powerlessness. I think he would be impatient with us, the people, for allowing the one percent to fool us into separating racial and economic injustice, as if one had not always followed the other, ever since Africans were captured and clapped into irons and brought here to labor solely for the economic benefit of others. We know he was impatient with well-meaning white people, the moderates, and I think he still would be. He wrote, powerfully, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, that:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”

I believe also that an economic upheaval—a real people’s revolution—is crucial to getting more white working people on board with true racial equality. As it is, there is too much fear, too much pitting against, too much of us vs them—the fear, planted by crafty politicians and businessmen—of a zero sum game where progress for black people somehow means white people lose. This fear is easy to dismiss and scoff at when you are white and live comfortably, but not so easy when the only privilege you may have ever had—and cling to desperately—is that of your skin color. Instead we need to do a better job of convincing working-class white people that we are all in this together: that empowering workers and raising wages is better for everyone, and that we all have more in common than we don’t when it comes to our real enemy—greedy CEOs, politicians with deep pockets, and Wall Street gamblers. As Langston Hughes so powerfully wrote to white Southern workers, in the early days of the last century:

Let us become instead, you and I,
One single hand
That can united rise
To smash the old dead dogmas of the past—
To kill the lies of color
That keep the rich enthroned
And drive us to the time-clock and the plow
Helpless, stupid, scattered, and alone—as now—
Race against race,
Because one is black,
Another white of face.

Regardless of the how—and there are many ‘hows’, from tax code changes to legislation to make it easier for workers to form unions, to reparations, to protests and public pressure and even nonviolent revolution—we need to start thinking in economic terms when we think about race relations in the U.S . Economic power is humanity. It’s opportunity. It’s the way to real, lasting change. Otherwise we are just as likely to keep dehumanizing people of color, to leaving people of color out of economic growth altogether. We are just as likely to keep leaving black people stranded on those rooftops, laying face down in those streets unable to breathe, until we as a society have finally decided that black lives matter. And America will never be the country we want it to be until that happens. We have a long way to go to achieve Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream—and we won’t achieve it with platitudes and posted memes and sales on bedding and towels. To quote again from Hughes, from one of the finest, fiercest poems ever written about this country:

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

#reclaimMLK #blacklivesmatter

Amber Sparks

About The Author

Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection MAY WE SHED THESE HUMAN BODIES and co-author of the novella THE DESERT PLACES (with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish.) Her second short story collection, THE UNFINISHED WORLD AND OTHER STORIES, will be published in early 2016 at Liveright/Norton.

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