The Dream of Economic Justice

As we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., we recognize his legacy on behalf of racial justice. But let us not forget that on the day he was assassinated, he was in Memphis to lead a sanitation workers’ strike. In the months ahead, he was planning a Poor People’s Campaign to march on Washington.

Dr. King knew that the struggle for racial justice would be profoundly difficult even after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. He was under no illusion about what it takes to change human behavior.

But he also knew that equality for African Americans could not be achieved by attention to race alone. Against the advice of many of his closest allies, he spoke out against the Vietnam War in part because it was undermining the nation’s capacity to continue to fight the War on Poverty.

The obstacles to this dream of economic justice are daunting. The revolutions of race, gender, and sexual orientation, along with what many perceived as social engineering by government, divided our country in the years following his death. The backlash was channeled into a discrediting of government that has only grown stronger since the Reagan years.

We are now confronted with a “free market fundamentalism” that rivals the biblical literalism of religious fundamentalists. These economic fundamentalists often cite Ayn Rand as their resident philosopher. For them, the “Beloved Community” of Martin Luther King, Jr. would be a social perversion.

The pendulum that usually swings between liberal and conservative eras roughly every 30 years is far behind schedule.

What would Dr. King say to us 44 years after his death about his dream delayed? First, he would not retreat for a single second from his spiritual message: “Deeply woven into the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that persons are made in the image of God, and that they are souls of metaphysical value.”

He would remind us of the biblical story of Dives, the rich man, who ignored Lazarus, the poor man, at his gate. “There is nothing in that parable that said that Dives went to hell because he was rich,” King stated. “Dives went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible.”

He would reject simplistic, and I think self-serving, free market fundamentalism. He would tell us that “capitalism forgets that life is social…” Our economic system must be designed so that it brings us together rather than isolating us from each other.

He would acknowledge that moving the nation toward economic justice is expensive. But he would make clear that we can afford the kinds of programs that address the needs of those at the margin of our society. In his last sermon, he cited an official of the Office of Economic Opportunity who had written: “The poor can stop being poor if the rich are willing to become even richer at a slower rate.”

He would find hope in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and in the fact that our nation is now publicly acknowledging the disparity in wealth and income that is greater in this country than any time since the 1920’s.

Above all, he would urge us to persist. “…Just as we must avoid a superficial optimism, we must also avoid a crippling pessimism. Even though all progress is precarious, within limits real social progress may be made…”

He would join with us in seeking an increase in the Illinois minimum wage and would be with us in spirit on the train car to Springfield on Tuesday, January 31—the first day of the 2012 legislative session—that campaign leaders have rented for a Faith Leaders day at the State Capitol. We hope many of you will join us.

He would applaud our efforts to push back the failed War on Drugs, which has been properly named The New Jim Crow, the title of Michelle Alexander’s nationally acclaimed book. He would support the “fair care” campaign to press Illinois hospitals to provide services to the uninsured commensurate with their tax-exempt status.

The need for a national agenda to achieve economic justice is as critical now as it was when Martin Luther King, Jr. first called for it. He would be fighting for it today. This is what we should remember as we seek to remain true to the legacy he has given us.

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