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Martin Luther King and a Freedom Budget for All Americans

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Back in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. signaled his shift from a solely civil rights focus to add the all-important issue of economic justice -- noting the material distress afflicting whites as well as nonwhites. He did this by writing the Foreword to a major document, "A Freedom Budget for All Americans."

It was the work of economist Leon Keyserling (chair of the Council of Economic Advisory under Pres. Truman) and Bayard Rustin, the legendary civil rights and non-violent resistance activist best known for his role as organizer-in-chief of the 1963 March on Washington, then Executive Director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, named to honor the equally legendary head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and who served as the Institute's President.

The Freedom Budget's seven basic objectives were:
  1. To provide full employment for all who are willing and able to work, including those who need education or training to make them willing and able.
  2. To assure decent and adequate wages to all who work.
  3. To assure a decent living standard to those who cannot or should not work.
  4. To wipe out slum ghettos and provide decent homes for all Americans.
  5. To provide decent medical care and adequate educational opportunities to all Americans, at a cost they can afford.
  6. To purify our air and water and develop our transportation and natural resources on a scale suitable to our growing needs.
  7. To unite sustained full employment with sustained full production and high economic growth.

The Freedom Budget proposed an outlay of $185 billion in 10 years -- which "sounds like a great deal of money, and it is a great deal of money." But it presumed, indeed called for, an expansion of the nation's economy, leading to increased federal revenues. And of course, even adjusting for 2009 dollars, that sum is dwarfed by what we now spend in bail-out and war funding. The document reported that 34 million Americans were then living in poverty, 28 million others "just on the edge... Almost one-third of our nation lives in poverty or want." (Shades of FDR...)

The 211 signers of the document represented a who's who of late 60s progressive thinking and activism: Walter Reuther, I.W. Abel, , David Dubinsky, Albert Shanker et al. from the labor movement; academics Kenneth Clark, John Kenneth Galbraith, Gunnar Myrdal, Hylan Lewis, C. Vann Woodward, David Riesman et al.; civil rights leaders Dorothy Height, Roy Wilkins, Floyd McKissick, Whitney Young, Jr., John Lewis, Vernon Jordan; Ralph Bunche, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Jules Feiffer, Father Robert Drinan, Burke Marshall, Benjamin Spock....

Randolph's Introduction eloquently speaks in a voice that could well be Barack Obama's, characterizing America, 2010:

"[In] the richest and most productive society ever known to man, the scourge of poverty and must be abolished - not in some distant future, not in this generation, but within the next ten years!... The tragedy is that the workings of our economy so often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other at the bottom of society... [A]ll Americans are the victims of our failure as a nation to distribute democratically the fruits of our abundance. For, directly or indirectly, not one of us is untouched by the steady spread of slums, the decay of our cities, the segregation and overcrowding of our public schools, the shocking deterioration of our hospitals, the violence and chaos in our streets, the idleness of able-bodied men deprived of work, and the anguished demoralization of our youth....[T]he 'Freedom Budget'... is not visionary or utopian, It is feasible. It is concrete. It is specific. It talks dollars and sense. It sets goals and priorities. It tells how these can be achieved. And it places responsibility for leadership with the Federal Government, which alone has the resources equal to the task."

Some 40 million of our fellow countrymen -women and -children today live in poverty, according to the obsolete government measure that understates the problem. The new administration and all of us would do well to look to and emulate this half-century-old model: A Freedom Budget for All Americans.

Yes, we can....