The Unfulfilled Dream

racial wealth gap

A half century after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is an appropriate time to reflect upon the accomplishments of his movement.

Undeniably, the struggle led by King resulted in vital civil rights and voting rights gains for blacks, along with protections against housing and job discrimination.

But the economic advancement of minorities and the poor that King advocated never came about. And since his death, our country has veered toward plutocracy and authoritarianism that provides little reason for hope.

At the end of his life, King was leading the Poor People’s Campaign.

His criticism of the economic divide and opposition to the Vietnam War clearly shook the country’s levers of power. Today, King has a saint-like aura. But back then, his popularity was far from universal.

“A man of peace, he died violently,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote in a New York Times op-ed last month. “A man of love, he died hated by many.”

There’s an argument that this appalling condition happened by choice.

Public policy and economic practices—tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, deregulation, government cuts, a near-frozen federal minimum wage, globalization, deindustrialization and the attack on unions — have hit blacks disproportionately.

The numbers are staggering:

  • Between 1983 and 2016, median black wealth in constant dollars shrunk from $7,000 to $3,400. For whites, median wealth rose from $100,000 to $140,000.
  • Five decades after King expressed his moral outrage over the country’s economic disparity, the median income of blacks remains roughly a third of what whites earn.

Prosperity Now, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies, estimates that without change, the typical black family won’t accumulate the same amount of wealth that the median white household now holds for 242 years.

Today, the Rev. Dr. William Barber of North Carolina — with the support of our national union — is reviving the Poor People’s Campaign. Let’s hope the new movement will help fulfill King’s shattered dream.

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