America paused Wednesday to remember Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
It’s good to honor MLK.
But, too often, we confine him to sentimental memory. A great man, dead too soon.
With our obligatory honor paid, we box up the injustices against which Dr. King fought, and file them away with his memory, as if they also died on that April evening in 1968.
Several times recently, I’ve been confronted with the notion that we “won” the fight against inequality in the 60s, and “can’t we just put that behind us?”
Unfortunately, no we did not “win.” And no, we must not quit.
An objective look at society reveals the “triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism” that MLK fought against remain alive and very unwell.
The alt-right outbreak in Charlottesville, Va., last August is an obvious example of how much hate simmers under the surface of our society, waiting for tacit permission to re-emerge.
But, the real face of racism is not so obvious, yet far more damaging than the tiki-torchers of the alt-right.
According to a Stanford, Harvard and Census Bureau study released last month, inequality continues to plague black men, regardless of the socioeconomic conditions in which they grew up.
The report followed 20 million children into adulthood, and found black boys born into wealthy households were far more likely to end up poor than their white counterparts, while white boys born poor had a far greater chance of escaping poverty than their black peers.
In 99 percent of American neighborhoods, black adults earn less than white peers who started at the same socioeconomic level, the report found. Those outcomes are profound in Oklahoma, where black households have a median annual income of $36,898, compared to $62,950 for white households, according to 2015 census data.
The poverty rate in America remains essentially unchanged from when MLK died: 12.8 percent of families in 1968, compared to 12.7 percent in 2016. And, the composition of those living below the poverty line remains skewed along color lines: 8.8 percent of whites are impoverished, compared to 22 percent of blacks.
Improving those disparities has become more, not less, difficult in the last 20 years, as American schools have resegregated to levels not seen since the 1950s.
According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) 2015 report, the percentage of American public schools with high concentrations of poor black or Hispanic students almost doubled — from 9 to 16 percent — between 2000 and 2014.
Disparities notwithstanding, poverty plagues all races, and Dr. King stood for all people suffering under its yoke. The need to continue fighting for the economically oppressed is reflected in the worsening of income inequality since 1968.
In 1968, the bottom 50 percent of wage-earners in America earned 20.6 percent of the national income, while the top 1 percent of earners brought in just 12.4 percent.
By 2014, the numbers had flipped: the bottom 50 percent of wage earners were paid just 12.6 percent of national income, while the top 1 percent took home 20.2 percent of all earnings in the country.
The root causes of poverty and inequality have worsened, not improved, since Dr. King died, and the need for the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 is just as strong — if not stronger — in 2018.
And what of militarism?
In a nation where poverty and income inequality are worsening, we just took a military budget already larger than the next seven nations combined, and inexcusably increased it by 10 percent.
I hardly think Dr. King would chalk that up as a victory for social justice.
Dredging up these difficult topics today may be no more popular than in 1968. Wouldn’t it be better to simply let these issues rest?
In response, there are no better words than Dr. King’s, from his Feb. 6, 1968, speech, “A Proper Sense of Priorities”:
“And we must know on some positions, cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there’re times when you must take a stand that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but you must do it because it is right.”
History will judge us by what is right. If we are to honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., and improve the future of our children, we must take up the cross he laid down in 1968, and carry it with the same courage and integrity.