MLK’s legacy relevant to today’s economic crisis

Fritz Jean, seated, and his girlfriend Renia Morant play with their 10-day-old baby, Quincy, during an interview Tuesday at his apartment in New York. Stephen Chernin, The Associated Press

Fritz Jean, seated, and his girlfriend Renia Morant play with their 10-day-old baby, Quincy, during an interview Tuesday at his apartment in New York. Stephen Chernin, The Associated Press

NEW YORK – The focus of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 wasn’t what had been accomplished – but rather his view of what still needed to be done.

More than four decades later, King scholars say he would take the same approach at this moment – the inauguration of the first black president when the nation is facing its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The crisis could widen the already large financial gaps between whites and blacks and make it more difficult to attain King’s dream of economic equality in America.

“I believe that Dr. King would caution us not to rest on the election of a black president and say our work here is done,” said Kendra King, associate professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.

Although King is best known for his civil rights work, he was a staunch advocate for economic justice. In the months before he was killed, he had been working on the Poor People’s Campaign and calling for an economic bill of rights. When he was assassinated in 1968, he was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike.

“Economic empowerment and justice was always a part of Dr. King’s purpose,” professor King said. “Civil rights without economic parity is still imprisonment.”

While the election of Barack Obama is a huge step toward King’s dream of a time when people are judged on the content of their character and not their skin color, economic data shows racial disparities are still pervasive when it comes to financial equality.From unemployment rates to wages to household income to home ownership rates, the differences are stark. For example, while white unemployment was at 6.6 percent in December, black unemployment was 11.9 percent. For black men, it was even higher, at 13.4 percent.

Fritz Jean, a 26-year-old college student and retail employee in New York City, has firsthand experience with economic disparity. The new father wants better for his son, born earlier this month; better than the schools he feels didn’t prepare him for college.

“You want to own property, you want to have something to leave for your family, but you have to get that and to get that is already an uphill battle,” he said.