The question Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked 42 years ago, "Where do we go from here?" could not be more timely than it is today. King raised the question to draw attention to ending poverty; spreading wealth, he argued, would help spread justice and peace.
King's sharpening focus on economic deprivation may be even more relevant today, in the midst of a recession in which suffering is color-blind.
In his prime during the Soviet-U.S. rivalry, King was not opposed to private citizens accumulating money. He knew the power of the dollar. In a 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said those fighting discrimination would more likely prevail "when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle."
Today, a black man leads our nation and an African-American woman, Oprah Winfrey, is both one of America's wealthiest citizens and among its most influential cultural figures. King might never have imagined such accomplishments would occur in only a few decades; but he likely would also be astounded to see the degree to which poverty pervades our society today.
In that SCLC speech, King implored that "the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice."
He spoke those words when Southern California stood out as a place where the division between rich and poor was softer than in many other parts of the U.S. Wages, housing accessibility and public schools in Los Angeles were all relatively strong. For countless working-class immigrants to Southern California of all races, King's assertion that cash could combat discrimination was a reality they were fortunate to experience first-hand.
High-wage jobs with benefits, in both private industry and government, made pioneers out of plain folk. Countless individuals and their children were the first in their families to own a home, the first to own a car, the first to graduate from college. These individual triumphs built a foundation of personal financial security and skills that fueled civic engagement and political participation.
As Dr. King noted, financial clout was a vital weapon in fighting discrimination. When minorities fought housing discrimination they could do so with the means to pay rent or take out a home mortgage. Companies that discriminated could face consumer boycotts. Contributions from well-paid workers strengthened labor unions. The taxes generated by these workers funded the exceptional schools and public infrastructure that defined 20th Century Los Angeles.
Decades of de-industrialization have devastated wages in Los Angeles County. The individual poverty rate in Los Angeles County was about 11% according to the 1970 Census; it climbed to nearly 18% in the 2000 Census.
The explosion of poverty in our midst began before the current national economic crisis, and is so severe its ill-effects will persist even as the economy recovers. As we commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must repeat his question, "where do we go from here?" Today in greater Los Angeles, we must ask if the downhill slide in working people's wages also threatens broader democratic advances that have defined us as a land of opportunity.
Observers of developing nations generally agree that social progress tends to follow economic progress. Gains in wealth eventually beget human rights advances; environmental protection, health care and literacy also improve when nations have money to fund programs or enforce laws, and citizens with personal property and economic clout demand high standards.
Our modern heritage as Southern Californians is one of leadership in environmental reform, widespread educational opportunities and social equality, as well as the promise of personal prosperity to reward hard work. Well-paying jobs fueled not only spending on houses, cars and consumer goods, but built a healthy tax base that funded our world-class colleges and infrastructure. It is this very heritage that is now challenged by declining wages, education health care and infrastructure.
Where we go from here -whether we advance or regress as a society -- now depends more than ever on cooperation.
Getting our region back on track requires a communal commitment to revitalizing our economy from labor, business and government. In the past, labor unions and corporate leaders could afford to fight lengthy battles with one another. Labor was emboldened by a growing workforce and employers had a rising tide of profits to back them up. In his 1967 speech King quoted labor leader Walter Reuther as saying the power of the United Auto Workers was evident in its ability to get General Motors to say "yes" when it wants to say "no."
Neither General Motors nor the united Auto Workers, or any combination of employers and workers, can afford such chest-thumping conflict today. Both labor and business are on the ropes. The consumer boycott -- one of King's most effective organizing tools -- has less relevance now when so many businesses already require bailouts and so few consumers have money to choose to buy things anyway.
The current economic crisis thus provides a great opportunity for consensus. Labor, business and government must recognize our future prosperity is linked. There are no simple solutions to the spread of poverty and income inequality, but we believe long-term progress can begin with a few ambitious goals:
- California's budget process is broken. Replacing the two-thirds legislative vote required to enact a budget with a simple majority requirement would end budget gridlock;
We must move decisively. We cannot afford to do otherwise. Where we must go from here has never been more clear.
Mark Ridley-Thomas is a Los Angeles County Supervisor and former Executive Director of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Eli Broad is founder of The Broad Foundations.