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MLK: Economic Justice for African Americans

For this year’s holiday honoring Dr. King, we are printing 3 commentaries on King’s political thinking that are important for understanding today’s situation - Fight Back! editors
by Adam Price |
February 1, 2003
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"Martin Luther King"
“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” - The Reverend Dr. King (1967). (Fight Back! News)

In 1967, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. described the economic plight of African Americans: “Let us take a look at the size of the problem through the lens of the Negro’s status in 1967. When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the Negro was 60% of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare that he is 50% of a person. Of the good things in life he has approximately one-half those of whites; of the bad he has twice those of whites. Thus half of all Negroes live in substandard housing, and Negroes have half the income of whites. When we turn to the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share. There are twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant mortality (widely accepted as an accurate index of general health) among Negroes is double that of whites.”

Today, thirty-five years later, the overall economic situation of African Americans has shown little change. While Black family income is now about two-thirds that of whites, many of the ‘negative experiences’ are more than twice that of whites: the unemployment rate for Blacks is more than twice that of whites, the rate of substandard housing and infant mortality for African Americans is about two and a half times that of whites, and the Black poverty rate is almost three times that of whites.

In Dr. King’s time, many tried to blame African Americans for this economic gap. The same is true today, where so-called ‘scholars’ try to blame the Black family, lack of education or even lack of intelligence. But Dr. King saw through these excuses for discrimination: “Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequence of neglect. Nor can they be explained by the myth of the Negro’s innate incapacities, or by the more sophisticated rationalization of his acquired infirmities (family disorganization, poor education, etc.). They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States. Certain industries and enterprises are based upon a supply of low-paid, underskilled and immobile nonwhite labor.”

So where do we go from here? I for one think that we need to change our economic system from one based on profit, capitalism, to one based on providing for people’s needs - socialism. I cannot say that Dr. King was for socialism. But I do believe that the economic goals that he fought for - a guaranteed job or income for all and economic equality between whites and nonwhites -cannot be achieved under capitalism.

(Both King quotes are from Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community.)