Taking time to remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final campaign to see how far we’ve come
On Monday, the Center for American Progress will join much of the rest of the country in commemorating and celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Much has changed in the 47 years since his death, while some things remain stubbornly similar to when Dr. King was alive. Following the gains from the Civil Rights Movement, in 1968 Dr. King launched the Poor People’s Campaign to try and move beyond Jim Crow to address the economic difficulties of the poor. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, which Dr. King led at the time, drafted a letter addressed “to the President, Congress and Supreme Court of the United States” demanding “an economic and social bill of Rights.” Below is a partial list of the demands from the letter and a look at the progress, or lack thereof, we’ve made in reaching a more equitable society:
“The Right [sic] of every employable citizen to a decent job.”
From the letter: “According to the official statistics, Negro unemployment is twice that of whites. Yet even these scandalous figures profoundly understate the injustice. According to the “Sub-Employment Index” of the Department of Labor (which takes in poverty employment, part time unemployment, the number of people driven out of the labor market and the vast number of Negroes whose very existence is not reported in the official statistics) there are ghettoes in the United States with sub-employment rates ranging between 30% and 50%.”
- Progress made: The unemployment rate has declined from 10 percent at the height of the 2007-08 recession to 5.6 percent as of last month.
- Challenge ahead: The Black unemployment rate is more than “twice that of whites,” 10.4 percent compared to 4.8 percent. In addition, the Hispanic unemployment rate is at 6.5 percent.
“The right to the full benefits of modern science in health care.”
From the letter: “It is an abiding scandal of American society that infant morality [sic] and life expectancy vary according to social class-and that the babies of black and white poor die at birth more often than those of any other group and that those who survive still look forward to a truncated life span. Medicare has proved an enormous benefit to those over 65 years of age but the country has yet to extend coverage to millions of others who desperately need it. Every man, woman and child in America should be guaranteed medical care under the social security system.”
- Progress made: We have made substantial progress towards a right to health care in the last few years with the Affordable Care Act, and the uninsured rate is down to record lows. In addition, the life expectancy discrepancy between blacks and whites has shrunk from a 7-year difference in 1960 to a 3.7-year difference in 2010.
- Challenge ahead: The discrepancy between the advantaged and the disadvantaged in infant mortality remains unconscionably high.
“The right to an adequate education.”
From the letter: “Today, most experts believe that a students [sic] required twelve years of training in order to be prepared to a place in an automating society. At the same time, Negro schools are regularly so inferior that a good portion of the students are not even taught the basic educational skills and therefore become bored, resentful and drop out at the first opportunity. According to the 1967 Manpower Report of the Department of Labor, even those black youth who are determined enough to finish twelve grades have often, only received instruction up to an eighth grade level in crucial subjects.”
- Progress made: Today’s high school dropout rates are at record lows, with Hispanic dropout rates falling by nearly 60 percent over the last 20 years and Black dropouts rates falling by half.
- Challenge ahead: There is still a large discrepancy in college graduation rates: In 2012, “33.5 percent of Americans 25 to 29 had at least a bachelor’s degree,” but only “27.6 percent of blacks, 23.4 percent of Native Americans and 19.8 percent of Latinos hold at least a two-year degree.”
BOTTOM LINE: These statistics highlight an unfortunate truth in American society: there is still so much to do to achieve Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a nation where everyone is judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. But honoring Dr. King’s legacy means continuing that difficult and important work in the hopes of truly achieving it one day.
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