My friend, mentor and colleague, Rev. James Lawson, calls our economic system “plantation capitalism.” Lawson was the nonviolent strategist for Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement and the key figure in the desegregation of Nashville. His reference, of course, pulls forward the image of enslaved field workers in the Old South.
The image chafes in my mind. Yes, slavery, but today’s workers are not slaves. They are not the landless peasants or sharecroppers that emancipated slaves were forced to be. They are not the low-level, below-the-standard-wage employees that Southern blacks became when they migrated to the steel cities of the North. They are not second-class citizens isolated into segregated neighborhoods and limited to menial jobs.
Except, there is a growing body of evidence showing that this is exactly what a majority of workers of all colors is becoming. Between 1965 and 2011, while the top 10 percent gained an inflation-adjusted annual income increase of $116,000,
August 28 of this year marks the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington. For many people, the march was simply the site where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. However, the full name of the march was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and it marked a high point of the modern Civil Rights Movement, after black communities and their supporters throughout the country boycotted buses, sat-in at lunch counters, rode in Freedom Rides, and marched in the streets. These massive protests were aimed at destroying, once and for all, the era of legal segregation — which had been a blot on this country since the end of slavery.
But organizers knew that the end of segregation without good jobs was no freedom at all. So, four of the march’s ten demands focused on employment issues. (See the ten demands and other items in the march’s “Organizing Manual No.
As we settle further into Black History Month, it’s the perfect time to reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. and his often under-acknowledged passion for economic justice. King stands as a pillar of civil rights leadership and the movement for equal rights. His legacy is special to the black community, and as a symbol, he has become an extraordinary role model to all people. However, to see King’s legacy only through this lens would miss much of his work. King was also a union ally and champion of economic justice.
King understood clearly that the battle for racial equality would be empty without a parallel fight for economic equality. “[What] will [the Negro] gain by being permitted to move an integrated neighborhood if he cannot afford to do so because he is unemployed or has a low-paying job with no future?”[i] Having equal rights without the means to exercise those rights becomes an empty promise,
In an action that already feels like ancient history, Congress voted earlier this month to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” While much remains to be settled, the revenue side of the issue got resolved because 84 House Republicans joined 172 Democrats to support the solution negotiated between the President and the Senate. In some ways, such bipartisanship was a moment of déjà vu from a time, nearly 50 years ago, when two pivotal civil rights bills were being considered. Then, Lyndon Johnson was President and both houses of Congress were in the hands of Democrats. Martin Luther King was in the streets. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was registering voters. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were passed by Republicans joining Democrats to move the President’s legislation into law.
In both circumstances – today, as then – it was one party’s Southern flank that refused to go along with its leadership.