With Dr. King's Dream for Jobs Deferred, Economic Justice Is Denied

Aug 27, 2013 | Updated Oct 27, 2013

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama will address the nation from the Lincoln Memorial, where he will likely remind Americans that we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, not merely "the March on Washington."

The next day, a nationwide strike of fast food restaurants has been called for to push for higher wages.

In this succession of events we see the unfinished business 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech: Even as our African-American President stands as a testament to greater fulfillment of Dr. King's dream of racial equality, the fast food strike reminds us that King's dream of elevating the lives of all workers remains deferred.

Economic justice for millions of Americans has been denied.

President Obama has rightly been pointing out that growing income inequality endangers democracy as much as lingering racism. The 1963 march was organized as a march for jobs and justice; the goals were, and remain, inseparable.

The organizing manual for the 1963 march makes its purpose plain: "We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis. That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation."

Americans continue to hotly debate whether one of those evils -- racism -- has been exorcised from our national soul. It's doubtful, however, that we'll soon settle the differences between those of us who are inspired by the election of President Obama and conspiracy theorists who refuse to believe he was even born in the United States.

But the evidence of economic deprivation is all around us, not only in the official data but where we live, eat and shop. If not afflicted ourselves, many of us are closely related to someone who is living through unemployment, staggering medical expenses or losing a home. Others slightly more fortunate live paycheck to paycheck, one illness or auto repair away from economic disaster.

As the United States economy has multiplied in size, the paychecks of working Americans have shrunk with each passing decade:

• The U.S. GDP has quadrupled in real terms since 1964.

• But real average weekly earnings today are actually lower than in 1963. Inflation-adjusted weekly wages peaked in 1972 -- today they are 9 percent below that level.

• Health care expenses accounted for 13 percent of household expenses in 1964. In 2012, health care took 26 percent of a household's spending.

• U.S. unemployment in 1963 was 5.7 percent; in 2012 it was 8.1 percent.

Among the 10 demands of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom was a federal minimum wage of $2 an hour.Adjusted for inflation, that $2.00 an hour in 1963 would be $15.27 today. By contrast, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

The call for a fast food workers strike is precisely the type of civil action that Dr. King and the religious, labor and civil rights organizers of the 1963 march both advocated and practiced.

The fast food industry reaps profits in many low-income communities from customers who sometimes have few other food choices, readily accepting their Electronic Benefit Transfer payments. At the same time, they pay workers in those same neighborhoods wages that provide little chance to move up from a low-wage existence.

The direct action by workers and those who support them is a symptom of the frustration too many Americans harbor for a system that has left the American worker out of the growth of the U.S. economy. Justice for fast food workers can be an initial victory on the path to true economic justice. The movement along that path can begin with a minimum wage that keeps up with the rising cost of living, but it must continue with deep investments in education, health care and public works that will build the infrastructure for a living-wage economy.

In his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. King said "America has given the Negro a bad check," that the promise of freedom by the Founding Fathers wasn't backed up by money in the bank. Since then, that check -- the promissory note of greater opportunity -- has bounced for the vast majority of working Americans, whatever their color.

As corporate earnings and stock prices rise, it's time to remember another declaration in Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" address to marchers: "We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

Mark Ridley-Thomas is chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. He is a former executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles.