Fifty years ago this weekend, Martin Luther King gave his famous “All Labor Has Dignity” speech in Memphis. More than 1,000 sanitation workers had walked off the job. The strikers and their supporters were packed, as James Lawson put it, into a “sardine atmosphere” at the Bishop Charles Maple Temple. Two weeks later, King would be murdered on a return trip to the city. America’s greatest civil rights leader told the sanitation workers they “were demanding the city respect the dignity of labor.” He didn’t mince words:
“Do you know that most poor people in this country are working every day? But they make wages so low they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of economic life. It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”
It wasn’t happenstance, King objected, that the majority of black Americans languish “on a lonely island of poverty amidst a vast ocean of material prosperity.” When there is great economic distress in the black community, he said, “they call it a social problem.” When there is massive challenge in the white community, “they call it a depression.” We are tired, he protested, “of smothering in an airtight cage of poverty.” What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an an integrated lunch counter, he asked, “if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
Such deprivation amid abundance cannot be squared, King declared, with either justice or Christianity. Jesus taught us, he noted, that “Dives went to hell because he didn’t see the poor.” The impoverished Lazarus repeatedly came to Dives’ gate, but the wealthy man always turned him away. “I come here to say,” King charged, “that America too is going to hell if she doesn’t use her vast wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.”
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If he were alive a half century later, King would lament that his country had become, despite its public boasts and pledged commitments, the richest, the poorest, and the most unequal major nation in the world. We treat poor, sick and hungry people, especially children, worse than other advanced nations. We have dreadful income mobility, leaving more locked, without hope, at the bottom. Thomas Piketty has written that we have greater gaps between rich and poor “than any other society, at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.”
Against this already-transgressing backdrop, North Carolina has launched the nation’s boldest war against poor people — moving from ignoring the impoverished to actually targeting them. In the last six years, the General Assembly radically reduced access for low income people to health care, unemployment compensation, pre-K study, child care, food stamps, children’s dental services and legal aid. We became the only state in American history to eliminate its earned income tax credit. We repeatedly blocked poor North Carolinians from receiving federal funds for which they qualified — preferring that tax dollars go to other states rather than to poor Tar Heels. And we repeatedly raised the taxes of low income filers to line the pockets of wealthy ones. We became path-breaking innovators in fiscal cruelty. And we bragged about it.
We lost something central when we converted Dr. King to the ascetic, beatific, above-the-fray figure celebrated on the federal holiday. Much of his courageous, prophetic call to justice and decency receded. King was clear-eyed and full-throated in recognition that our economic excuses, theorizations and justifications were designed to hide deep and intended moral, constitutive and religious failings.
“All we say to America,” he put it two weeks later, in the shadow of death, “is be true to what you put on paper.” The degradation and marginalization of those at the bottom is a villainous, un-Christian, rejection of the American promise, King claimed.
Our leaders in Raleigh, and Washington, no doubt abhor reminders of such commitments. Perhaps they wouldn’t have believed in them when they were made. They sure don’t accept them now.
Dr. King was also certain that equal dignity would not flow willingly from the good will or hollow declarations of the privileged and powerful:
“Our struggle is for genuine equality. Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.”
King’s marching orders remain our own.
Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.