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In His Own Words: Dr. King's Leadership Legacy for Economic Justice

09/02/2011 12:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2011

There have been lots of blogs, news articles and editorials commenting on the King Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and the postponement of its official opening last week because of Hurricane Irene. August 29, 2011, The New York Times wrote an editorial captioned "Dr. King's Dreams." They reminded us that the 'Dream' speech occurred at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They continued in their editorial to note that "In the following years, until he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. King focused primarily on the need for economic justice and the grim problem of poverty that remains so significant for all races today."

He later proposed a "Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged," calling on government to spend $100 billion over the course of a decade (the equivalent of $650 billion now) on assistance for housing, employment and education. The Chicago campaign of peaceful protests was met by angry mobs -- hurling rocks and shouting slurs. The effort sputtered.

As our nation commemorates "Labor Day" and the president has announced his plan to present a series of job creating proposals to a Special Joint Session of Congress next week, it's fitting that we review at this time the "Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged," originally proposed by Dr. King.

Bill of Rights For The Disadvantaged

The struggle for rights is, at bottom, a struggle for opportunities. In asking for something special, the Negro is not seeking charity. He does not want to languish on welfare rolls any more than the next man. He does not want to be given a job he cannot handle. Neither, however, does he want to be told that there is no place where he can be trained to handle it. So with equal opportunity must come the practical, realistic aid which will equip him to seize it. Giving a pair of shoes to a man who has not learned to walk is a cruel jest.

Today, special measures are needed to alleviate the economic conditions of Negroes and all other persons in a family unit which earns less than $3,000 a year.

During World War II, our fighting men were deprived of certain advantages and opportunities. To make up for this, they were given a package of veterans' rights, significantly called a "Bill of Rights." The major features of this GI Bill of Rights included subsidies for trade school or college education, with living expenses provided during the period of study. Veterans were given special concessions enabling them to buy homes without cash, with lower interest rates and easier repayment terms. They could negotiate loans from banks to launch businesses, using the government as an endorser of any losses. They received special points to place them ahead in competition for civil service jobs. They were provided with medical care and long-term financial grants if their physical condition had been impaired by their military service. In addition to these legally granted rights, a strong social climate for many years favored the preferential employment of veterans in all walks of life.

Compensation Approved

In this way, the nation was compensating the veteran for his time lost in school or in his career or in business. Such compensatory treatment was approved by the majority of Americans. Certainly the Negro has been deprived. Few people considered the fact that, in addition to being enslaved for two centuries, the Negro was, during all these years, robbed of the wages of his toil. No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet, a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. Such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest.

Proposes Gigantic Bill

I am proposing, therefore, that, just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war Veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial. I am specifically proposing that the platform of [this] party include an endorsement and support for the broad plan of such a Bill.

A Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged would immediately transform the conditions of Negro life. The most profound alteration would not reside so much in the specific grants as in the basic psychological and motivational transformation of the Negro. I would challenge skeptics to give such a bold new approach a test for the next decade. I contend that the decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls and other social evils would stagger the imagination. Change in human psychology is normally a slow process, but it is safe to predict that, when a people are ready for change as the Negro has shown himself ready today, the response is bound to be rapid and constructive.

While Negroes form the vast majority of America's disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill. The moral justification for special measures for Negroes is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery. Many poor whites, however, were the derivative victims of slavery. As long as labor was cheapened by the involuntary servitude of the black man, the freedom of white labor, especially in the South, was little more than a myth. It was free only to bargain from the depressed base imposed by slavery upon the whole labor market. Nor did this derivative bondage end when formal slavery gave way to the de facto slavery of discrimination. To this day the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation does not mark them. It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education. In one sense it is more evil for them, because it has confused so many by prejudice that they have supported their own oppressors.

Forgotten White Poor

It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor. A Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, applicable to white and Negro families alike with annual incomes of less than $3,000, could mark the rise of a new era, in which the full resources of the society would be used to attack the tenacious poverty which so paradoxically exists in the midst of plenty.

While the numbers referenced need to be updated to 2011 dollars, the concept merits the attention of organized labor, Congress, and all people of good will concerned about economic justice and opportunities for those millions of Americans who are unemployed.

Maybe the White House and members of Congress should revisit Dr. King's proposal.