Almost 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is only natural to wonder what he might teach us in these profoundly troubling days. It is worth remembering that, especially in the last three years of his life, his most strident calls were for economic justice.
“I have a dream today that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” As the minister and scholar Michael Eric Dyson reminds us, these 34 words are more famous than anything else King ever said. These are the words we carry in our hearts. But this was far from the full message.
It is now commonplace to observe that the United States is the prison capital of the world. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation on earth, with Russia a not so close second. This monstrous reality has fallen most heavily on African Americans and Hispanics.
While he did not live to see that our criminal justice system would become perhaps the leading civil rights issue of our day, Dr. King knew intuitively what must happen if we are ever to move beyond Jim Crow: civil rights laws alone could not address three centuries of racism and economic exploitation.
He was killed in Memphis, where he had gone to lead a strike of sanitation workers, and his next destination was to be Washington D.C. where he was mobilizing a Poor People’s Campaign.
Three weeks before the end of his life, he spoke of how in the 1860s Americans had been given land if they moved west to build their economic future even as blacks remained slaves. Listen to Martin Luther King in this video. He is tired, impatient, even close to anger.
Anticipating a Poor People’s Campaign, he said, “Now when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.” Is this not a call for reparations?
For most Americans, the idea of reparations is a non-starter. It seems at best impractical. But consider the perspective of African Americans who cannot get a job due to a marijuana arrest on their records as we move to the legalization of marijuana. They are witnessing young white men creating businesses to sell a substance that blacks went to jail for possessing.
The growing marijuana industry as an argument for reparations is a small slice of a much deeper problem. Even if we cannot devise a clear-cut reparations policy as such, it is worth keeping front and center the idea of helping people overcome the challenges of almost three centuries of oppression. Ta-Nehisi Coates tells us why: “Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America…But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much – if not more than – the specific questions that might be produced.”
In this, he is surely right. Let us remember today that as King called for the brotherhood and sisterhood of us all, he knew this could not be achieved without economic justice. If only to help us discuss this fundamental truth, it worthwhile to discuss what society can and should do in the way of reparation.
Dr. King surely would have approved.