As our nation pauses to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with the dedication of a new memorial on the anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, most will focus on only part of the story. When many Americans think of the historic March, they think of Dr. King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivering his inspiring “I Have a Dream” words he spontaneously added at the very end of his speech. For nearly 50 years the powerful words in that section have been quoted all over the world. But too few people remember that the March on Washington wasn’t focused just on racial equality but was actually named the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was a demand for economic opportunity and economic justice for all. Too few know or remember the central metaphor that made up the first half of Dr. King’s speech: the bounced check America had written to its Black and poor citizens.
Dr. King said we had come to the nation’s capital that August day to cash a check America had written nearly two hundred years earlier. He reminded us that when our nation’s founders wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they had created a promissory note that guaranteed all Americans the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But instead of honoring that promise for Black Americans, America had defaulted on it and given us a bad check that had come back marked “insufficient funds.” Dr. King said those of us who had come to the 1963 March on Washington—over 200,000 strong—were there to cash our checks because we refused to believe “the bank of justice is bankrupt” or that “there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
It is a message with special resonance this year and month as our nation’s leaders are locked in bitter debates about our nation’s insufficient funds, whether or not to default on our country’s debts, whether rich and powerful individuals and corporations whose bank accounts are overflowing from the tax breaks and subsidies which drove up huge debts will be asked to contribute their fair share, and whether millions of hungry, homeless, poor, and poorly educated American children and families will be asked to sacrifice more and continue to receive bounced checks from the bank of economic opportunity and justice.
Congress is fighting the wrong national deficit. The real deficit every leader needs to address is our human deficit and the immoral values that drive some extremist political leaders to hijack the nation’s economic wellbeing and sacrifice the lives of innocent children and the poor.
The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s recent The State of America’s Children 2011 report shows millions of children and families fell into poverty in 2009 from the economic downturn, jeopardizing America’s promise of a productive future for them and for our nation. One in every five children—15.5 million—was poor in 2009. Children of color, who will be a majority of our child population in 2019, continue to suffer disproportionately. In 2009 more than one in three Black and one in three Hispanic children lived in poverty compared to more than one in ten White non-Hispanic children. And the younger they are the poorer they are. These helpless poor babies cannot fight powerful corporate lobbyists and their political allies.
Child poverty is closely tied to economic opportunity. Although two-thirds of poor children live in families with at least one family worker, the available jobs and wages often aren’t enough. A study prepared for CDF by Dr. Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, found the American dream and employment opportunities vanishing for countless poorly educated Black young people. In 2010 the unemployment, underemployment, and hidden unemployment rate for all Black 16 to 29-year-olds was a shocking 40 percent and 43 percent for Black males. The large number of young Black adults not working full-time jobs will severely limit their future employability, earnings, and ability to support their families.
Fifty years after the March on Washington, jobs and economic opportunities are still missing for huge numbers of Black families today, and millions of families of all races who are feeling the pain of soaring unemployment and low wages. In another new study Dr. Sum found: “To date, through the first quarter of 2011, the nation’s recovery from the 2007-2009 recession is both a jobless and a wageless recovery… The only major beneficiaries of the recovery have been corporate profits and the stock market and its shareholders,” with workers and their families left behind.
This was not Dr. King’s dream. That is not and must not become America’s dream. Those of us who refuse, like Dr. King, to believe that there are “insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation” need to stand up and demand that our leaders focus on the real economic deficit—jobs and economic opportunity for all and a world quality education for every child. Our children need to see their parents going to work and holding a job. Our children need the economic and emotional security employed parents provide. Our children need to know that if they work hard and get a good education there will be a good job in their future.
When Dr. King died calling for a Poor People’s Campaign, there were 11 million poor children in America. Today, with 15.5 million poor children, millions living in extreme poverty, I’ve no doubt he’d be calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign with a sense of urgency. He’s not coming back. It’s up to us to pick up the mantle of justice.