By Raphael Warnock
Finally, politicians on both sides of the aisle have decided that it makes sense to at least talk about wealth inequality. Those who are serious about this problem, and its complicated relationship to the thorny issue of race, would do well to remember that in the last three years of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was focused sharply on poverty.
Ironically, just five days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the voting rights bill into law, the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles exploded into an urban inferno fueled by hopelessness and despair. Dr. King shortened his vacation in San Juan, Puerto Rico to come to Los Angeles and stand with the jobless poor and with those who were poor because their jobs did not provide adequate benefits or a living wage. Brought face to face with the tragic limits of his movement’s influence, Dr. King confided to one of his trusted advisors, Bayard Rustin, “You know, Bayard, I worked to get these people the right to eat hamburgers, and now I’ve got to do something …to help them get the money to buy them.”
To be sure, the young Nobel laureate had already won a few epoch-making victories that would change America forever. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended Jim Crow laws and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided voter protections that have literally changed the complexion of the American electorate and elected officials. But while the removal of these overt barriers of legal segregation was significant, it did not eliminate the abiding structural inequality that would lead the Kerner Commission to conclude two years later that the nation was actually “moving toward two societies, one black, one white- separate and unequal.”
Nearly fifty years later, the question is in what direction are we moving now?
In the decades since Dr. King’s death, wages for all but the top 2% of income earners have been stagnant and wealth inequality has sharply increased. The top 1% now owns about 40% of the nation’s wealth. Meanwhile, in recent years social mobility for children born in poverty has decreased in much of the country, but particularly in the South and the Midwest, areas with high concentrations of African-Americans and entrenched patterns of residential segregation.
But we can correct this if we would learn to tune out the well-financed ideological noise that calls every effort to give people a fair chance “socialism” and every voice for basic fairness, including the Pope, a socialist.
We honor Dr. King and the kind of commitment that he and others represent by boldly embracing what he called “a revolution in values.” We can begin this week by telling Congress to extend unemployment benefits to millions of Americans and raise the minimum wage. Not only would it help workers, it would actually help the economy in the short term so that we can at last have a serious conversation about wealth inequality and the kind of nation we intend to be.
Dr. King said it best: “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Raphael Warnock is senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.