By Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg
In celebrating Martin Luther King Day we pay tribute to the stunning gains in political and civil rights achieved under his inspired leadership while too often failing to recognize that the major issue to which Dr. King devoted the last part of his life was the reduction of economic inequality.
How quickly we forget that the turbulent latter half of the 1960s was a time when economic inequality and unemployment became salient issues as the nation’s urban ghettoes exploded in rage at having been left behind in an economy that was presumably “booming.”
The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission), which investigated the causes of these rebellions, concluded that they resulted from black frustration at lack of economic opportunity and called, among other things, for a program to create two million jobs over the next three years.
Dr. King, pronounced the report a "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription to life" and urged every American “to administer the remedy without regard for the cost and without delay."
Dr. King was keenly aware that economic rights and political rights were closely linked. He was gunned down in Memphis where he had come to support striking sanitation workers. Before his death he had been planning a Poor People’s Campaign much like the Bonus Army campaign of 1932 which galvanized an earlier generation around the issues of unemployment and poverty.
According to King’s biographer Stephen B. Oates, the Poor People’s Campaign was to be a full-scale war on poverty – an encampment of poor people in the nation’s capital to last three months or longer, putting relentless pressure on Congress and spotlighting for the entire nation the paradox of "poverty amid plenty" and the miserable realities of America's poor.
In commemorating this aspect of King’s legacy we are reminded of another January anniversary: that of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 Message to Congress calling for a “Second” or “Economic Bill of Rights.”
In that message, which has been deemed “the greatest speech of the century,” Roosevelt declared that the political rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness…. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Shortly before he was killed, Dr. King had called specifically for an “Economic Bill of Rights” that included a guarantee of jobs for all those who could work (and a guaranteed income for those too young, too old, or too disabled to work).*
The guarantee of employment is central to the Economic Rights conceptions of both King and Roosevelt. In a second call for an Economic Bill of Rights a year after the first, FDR stated: “Of these rights the most fundamental, and one on which the fulfillment of the others [health care, education, housing] in large degree depends, is the "right to a useful and remunerative job.”
Seldom has the denial of employment been more movingly described than by King: “In our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man [sic] of a job or an income. You are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist. You are in a real way depriving him of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, denying in his case the very creed of his society.”
King’s untimely assassination stilled an important voice for jobs, just as Roosevelt’s death two decades earlier had robbed full employment of potentially its most effective advocate.
It is a tragic fact of our national life that their prescriptions went unheeded. Official unemployment today is more than twice the 3.8 percent rate in 1968, the year of King’s death, and has averaged 6.1 percent between 1968 and the beginning of the Great Recession.
In the late 1960s, economists began to uncover the "sub-employment" not counted in the official unemployment rate, particularly in the nation’s ghettos. Today, there are more “hidden unemployed”—either working part-time because they can’t find full-time work or wanting a job but not looking—than the 10.4 million counted as officially unemployed; not to mention an estimated 18 million working poor who are employed full-time, year-round for less than the four-person poverty level.
Long term unemployment is the highest it’s been in the last 35 years and of the meager 74,000 jobs created in December, 40,000 were temporary.
We can and must create a public sector jobs program to employ those who need and want work. Both Roosevelt and King knew that the private sector cannot provide jobs for millions of people, and its inability to do so is manifest today, even with ongoing monthly aid from the Federal Reserve. We know that public job creation works because it was done successfully in the 1930s.
Within a short span of time it was possible to put millions of people to work on the public payroll creating incalculable benefits not only for the families of those employed, but for the nation in the form of basic infrastructure, environmental conservation and a national treasury of public art and culture.
All that is lacking today is the political will.
*King's call for an Economic Bill of Rights was in King's "Showdown for Nonviolence," Look, April 16, 1968. PUBLISHED POSTHUMOUSLY
Sheila D. Collins is Professor Emerita of Political Science at William Paterson University. Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg is Professor Emerita of Social Policy at Adelphi University. They are co-founders of the National Jobs for All Coalition, and editors/co-authors of the recently published, When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal (Oxford University Press, 2013).