On July 2, 1964, we won our civil rights when the Civil Rights Act was signed and on August 6, 1965, we won our political rights when the Voting Rights Act was signed but on April 4, 1968 our fight for economic rights was abruptly interrupted by an assassin’s bullet that killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he was organizing The Poor People’s Campaign. Today, let us not only celebrate the anniversary of winning our voting rights but also commit ourselves to resuscitate our fight for economic rights – economic rights that will lift the millions of poor and working class Americans oppressed by the inegalitarian system imperatives of capitalism, which are fueled by racism, to their rightful place of access to the means and modes of production historically held by an elite class of people of privilege.
The fact that our fight for economic rights is one that remains to be won is indicated not only by the fact that we have no “Economic Rights Bill” enactment to celebrate along with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts but also by the fact that a statistical comparison of our condition now and in the 1960s shows, black Americans are disproportionately represented in this country’s economic underclass. For example, consider the following:
• In 1968, 43% of black children were born in poverty and 40% are still born in poverty today – a decrease of only 3% in 47 years;
• Since 1968, the percentage of blacks living far below the poverty line has remained at 15%;
• In the late 1960s, 76.6% of black children attended majority black schools and in 2010, 74.1% of black children still did so;
• For the past nearly fifty years, the black unemployment rate has remained at between 2 to 2.5 times the white unemployment rate. In 2013, the black unemployment rate was 13.1%, more than 2 times the white unemployment rate of 6.5%; and
• The 2013 black unemployment rate of 13.1% is the same as the average national unemployment rate of 13.1% during the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1939.
Dr. King realized that to be fully free we must be not only civilly and politically free but also economically free. That is why while standing with the Memphis Sanitation Workers as they fought their economic rights, Dr. King also was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign – a campaign that went beyond fighting racism to fighting the oppression of the poor and working class that is inherent in capitalism.
Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, unfortunately, was abruptly interrupted when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet and since that time most of black America and all of poor and working class America has been teetering and tottering on only two legs of the three legged stool of freedom. Those two legs being civil and political rights and the third, missing leg, being economic rights.
Therefore, as we celebrate the signing of the Voting Rights Act fifty years ago today, let us not only look back with pride over what was accomplished on that momentous occasion but also look forward with a renewed resolve to not spend another fifty years, months, days or minutes not working to put the leg of economic rights on our three-legged stool of freedom.
How, one might ask are we to do that? The answer is to look to grass roots, progressive, workers’ rights and social justice movements in your local community. Movements such as Muslims for Social Justice and Black Workers’ for Justice – and please note that these are movements and not simply organizations. Movements make things happen, they move things along but all organizations are interested in doing that – many of them are organized to uphold the status quo. Therefore we must go beyond being members of organizations to being active parts of movements that move us from the oppression of the poor and working class that fuels capitalism to the empowerment of the poor and working class by redistributing wealth and access to the means and modes of production.
The redistribution of wealth and access to the means and modes of production is necessary and long overdue because for the more than fifty years we have ridden the wagon fueled by false promises from Washington only to return to the same place on which we got on that wagon – a place where black men and women are attacked and murdered by police who are sworn to protect and serve us and our collective economic and educational futures are just as strongly gripped by the stranglehold of racism as they were fifty years ago.
So as we pause today to celebrate, as we should, the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, let us also renew our resolve to become actively involved in grassroots, progressive movements that will help us win the economic rights that go along with our civil and political rights and make us all fully free.