🌙 The King's Forgotten Dream
The creaky wooden walls of the small cottage bowed outward in the unusually steamy fall weather. The conversations inside were even more heated.
It was 1967 and inside that cottage The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood triumphant. He’d led a historic march on Washington and made a speech for the ages. He had ushered in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, both of which transformed the way all Americans lived and worked. He was even becoming a global icon, winner of the most recent Nobel Peace Prize.
Alongside him stood activists from Black, Native American, Puerto Rican, and Mexican-American organizations, eagerly listening as MLK began to explain what he always knew was the second part of his life’s work: economic freedom for all people.
He would die four months later.
The economy cannot be separated from justice
MLK had another dream.
One that acknowledged that racial bigotry wasn’t over, but that a parallel set of worsening problems, chief among them a division of the populace by economic classes, had to be resolved.
“Desegregation and the right to vote are essential, but Black people in this country and other Americans will never enter full citizenship until they have economic security.” - The King
But Dr. King never had the opportunity to properly launch his “Poor People’s Campaign.” The movement faltered after his passing. Civil rights efforts throughout the next four decades refocused on racial bigotry and discrimination, and on religious discrimination after 9/11.
Even though inequality has worsened since MLK’s passing, his dream for economic security for all Americans remains unfulfilled.
Systems help perpetuate economic inequality
Part of the reason for these failures is because our systems of governance, law and public policy aren’t designed to solve for economic inequality.
In the America in which we now live, should a homeless woman on the street be denied her right to peaceably protest, an army of civil rights lawyers like myself will rally to defend her First Amendment rights. But no amendment exists that will shield her from the excesses of a brutal winter night.
We pride ourselves on the legal infrastructure that protects the highest of needs on Maslow's hierarchy, while battling continuously to provide for the barest of our people's physiological needs.
Measuring well-being can be tricky, but data doesn’t lie: As the middle class shrinks, almost half of all Americans experience poverty sometime in their lives; and these numbers continue to grow.
The U.S has the second-highest income inequality and poverty rate among rich countries. At any given time, 42.3 percent of us are poor or very low-income. Almost a quarter of our children live in poverty and childhood mortality in the U.S. exceeds any other industrialized nation.
Because unhealthy food is cheaper and more readily available than healthy food, those in poverty are the unhealthiest and since the poor comprise such a large share of the U.S. population, it shouldn't be surprising that the U.S. as a whole is the unhealthiest and most obese advanced nation. These unhealthy people rely on an expensive and sometimes inaccessible American health care system, spending more on health care than any other "developed" nation. The high cost of health care ends up driving those with less further into poverty.
The proposed solutions … are part of the problem
Education has long been seen as a way to lift people out of poverty and into the middle class. But college isn't affordable when you're paying the highest educational costs in the world. It shouldn't be surprising then, that despite being lauded as the "land of dreams," rates of intergenerational income mobility are lower in the U.S. than they are in France, Spain, Germany, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and other countries.
Voting your way out of poverty doesn't work either. The U.S has the lowest voter turnout of any democracy. Low-income folks hold down multiple jobs and work long hours. Making it to the polls is a herculean task. A highly politicized districting system and an electoral college that diminishes the power of most low-income voters further diminishes their political power, particularly that of urban-dwelling people of color.
Many argue that through hard work, the poor can lift themselves out of poverty. But low-income Americans already work harder than almost anyone else in the world. In fact, Americans as a whole work more hours and take less days off than anyone in the industrialized world.
Awaken MLK’s forgotten dream
When the country was founded, the population of modern-day Houston was spread out among 13 states. Almost everyone lived on farms, not in cities. They lived with extended families and relied upon strong social networks for support. The Bill of Rights spoke to grievances not borne of income inequality, but of the excesses of the state. Those grievances haven't gone away, but additional problems have arisen in the last 250 years that must be confronted by a concerted movement of people and ideas.
A movement that thinks critically about what a "right" is:
A movement that tackles laws blocking the poor from better housing due to exclusionary zoning practices.
A movement that integrates schools not only on the basis of color, but economic disparity.
That advocates for Election Day as a paid national holiday to make voting easier for everyone, not just low-income Americans.
A movement that holds responsible those who prevent the formation of economic unions, even by well-off professionals, like lawyers and doctors.
A movement that asks why we protect the right to own a lethal weapon, but not obtain a square meal.
This is necessary because pre-existing institutions have little incentive to assist people who have no purchasing power, fail to vote regularly and are unable to make their voice heard. When economic inequality is so pervasive that the organs of the state and the private sector perpetuate rather than ameliorate its effect, it's time for the very people experiencing the inequality to step in.
It is time for you to step in.
And it is why I started The Difference Engine - to work with communities to build their own solutions to inequality.
That was my way to fulfill King’s forgotten dream.
Find yours 👊🏽
✈️ Catch Me If You Can
New York | February 4 - 6
Phoenix, AZ | February 12 - 13
📅 Reading & Watching
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert A. Caro
Irish human rights lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh stood in front of the International Court of Justice as part of South Africa's case against Israel for its wartime conduct. In her address, Ní Ghrálaigh also showed two photos of a whiteboard at an abandoned hospital in Gaza. The first showed a handwritten message on it by a doctor which said: “We did what we could. Remember us.”