The civil rights icon saw economic issues to be intertwined with racial justice. Today’s globalized economy makes justice that much harder to achieve.
(This commentary was originally published by YES! Magazine on April 6, 2018)
On April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He was in Memphis standing in solidarity with striking city sanitation workers who were demanding their fundamental right to dignity and fair compensation for their labor. He called for unflinching resistance against the economic injustice perpetrated by government and businesses and closed with his promise that “I may not get there with you, but … we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
King spoke most directly to and for Black Americans, calling them to stand against their servitude to a system that denied their humanity. His larger quest, however, was a world of peace, dignity for labor, and equality for all humankind. His resistance targeted unjust laws that favored one group over another, and in his last public speech, encouraged people to start an economic boycott of companies that didn’t have fair hiring policies.
In his call for unity, he spoke of the Egyptian Pharaoh who could only hold on to his slaves so long as he kept them fighting against each other. When the slaves got organized, the Pharaoh lost his power.
Many of us who otherwise enjoyed White privilege while King was alive embraced him as a voice for all people. His words reminded us that no one’s livelihood, rights, and dignity can be secure until everyone’s are secure. In the decades following King’s death, this truth was dramatically demonstrated by the decline of labor unions, job security, and wage stagnation, by threats to social safety nets and attacks on health and safety standards, and by growth in personal debt.
These developments have massively impacted everyone. They are most acutely felt by racial minorities and the poor, but even those of us who have escaped direct personal harm can see our children and grandchildren dealing with struggles many of us once believed our society was putting behind us forever.
King’s dream of a world of dignity, peace, and sufficiency remains unfulfilled, but there have been significant accomplishments, both with people of color gaining significant representation and power and having their civil rights recognized, and with a broader embrace of tolerance in wider society.
Yet in many ways King’s vision of a world of peace and justice for all now seems even further out of reach than it was at the time of his death. The world changed dramatically in the subsequent 50 years.
The globalization of society and the economy has allowed corporate power to grow and consolidate without regard to geographic boundaries. Corporate interests continue to negotiate in secret to craft international trade and investment agreements that put themselves even further beyond the reach of national laws and liability for the public consequences of their actions. These agreements were then pushed through national legislative bodies with minimal public review or debate.
Inequality and environmental degradation also have grown apace, and all but the most fortunate among us are being reduced to a desperate daily struggle for survival.
King called for national unity. Now we need global unity.
That requires all of us to acknowledge our differences while we return to the mountaintop together to embrace the dream and serve the common good. That is the only way we can break up concentrations of corporate power, restore Earth to health, and secure the accountability of the institutions of business and government to the communities that depend on them.
Just as in 1968, there is now an urgent imperative for people to come together both locally and globally to make King’s dream a reality.