This week marks the anniversary of my father's death. Many Americans observe this occasion by looking back at the ideals he fought for and gave his life to advance. I believe we should mark it by looking forward to how much further we can advance those ideals in our own lifetimes.
There is no doubt that America, and in fact the world, are better today in so many ways, thanks in part to our progress in living up to those ideals. We are witnessing peoples across the world throwing off repressive regimes, inspired both by Dr. Martin Luther King's teachings of non-violent social change and the momentous step America itself took in overcoming our own history by electing a president who once could not even have voted in some of the states he carried. These developments are testament to the power of both my father's principles, and America's.
But while we can take well-earned satisfaction in how far we have come, there is still further we can go. In this period between another anniversary of my father's passing and the anniversary this summer of the March on Washington and the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr., national memorial, we at the King Center in Atlanta and its affiliated policy organization, the Drum Major Institute here in New York City, are launching a national effort asking Americans to consider the following questions:
Have we removed all government-imposed barriers and inequities? While Americans have differing views on the role of government, we all recognize that everyone should be allowed to participate equally in that government, and that equal access to the ballot box is the foundation of all our freedoms. Yet governments across the country still impose requirements that effectively limit many Americans' ability to vote: The outdated practice of holding elections in the middle of the work week -- which stems from an agricultural era -- cuts down the ability of many Americans to exercise their franchise. Some jurisdictions exacerbate this problem by closing the polls at an hour that most working people are just getting home from their jobs -- if they're fortunate to work only one. Some politicians are now talking of erecting additional hurdles. With one of the lowest rates of voter participation in the world, shouldn't America today be promoting voting rather than hindering it?
Are we doing what we can to ensure that the next generation of Americans can compete economically and provide for those facing retirement? Other countries, especially India and China, are running hard to beat us in high-wage activities like technology, innovation, and manufacturing, not just low-wage occupations as in the past, by investing in education. But, rather than producing more high-wage jobs and the well-trained workers to fill them, our nation is producing more people in poverty and lower wages, even as corporate profits and bonuses stand at record levels. Is the best course to continue divesting from our public education and retirement systems and look to the private sector to provide, instead? Or is it to encourage both private enterprise and public re-investment? Can we afford to do so? Or can we afford not to?
Is the answer to falling private-sector wages and benefits to tear down public-sector wages and benefits, as well? This actually was the argument my father was working against at the time he was killed. Municipal workers had a long history of low pay in menial jobs, highly concentrated amongst minority workers. Despite public perceptions, this remains unfortunately true today: Studies indicate that public sector workers, disproportionately minority, are actually paid less for comparable educational and experience levels than their private sector counterparts. Nevertheless, for several decades, increasing public sector pay has represented a rising floor for private sector workers, as well. Do we really want to turn around now and drop that floor out from under not just public but also private sector workers? Is the course ahead for our nation to eliminate what retirement security remains for those who still have it -- or to use public sector benefits, as we have in the past, to expand security for all Americans?
These and similar questions are what my father would be asking us today. They are, in fact, the questions he was asking when he died. They are the questions I hope all Americans will join with us in asking in the months ahead.
The King Center and Drum Major Institute not only will be asking these and other tough questions throughout 2011 but also are blazing innovative new trails in expanding the role of a traditional "think tank" further into a "do tank."
Our new programming will comprehensively address the barriers our country faces in bringing the American Dream to all Americans, working to reduce poverty and expand opportunity across the country. This will involve a multi-layered approach to issues of poverty and opportunity, stretching from the White House to statehouses across the country to those who lack houses of their own, by not only continuing and revitalizing Dr. King's work in tearing down legal barriers to opportunity and success, but also helping to construct public, non-profit and private-sector solutions. These include education financing to ensure that every American has the opportunity to go as far as their abilities will take them, decent housing that working families can afford, financial services that are accessible to lower-income families, health insurance that keeps costs down not by denying coverage but by promoting health and wellness, and more flexible transportation options.
We will be doing all this in not just our "home cities" of New York and Atlanta, but elsewhere in the Northeast and South, the Midwest and West, in big cities and small and in rural areas, in poor communities and wealthy ones, in blue states and red states. This is a truly national effort -- an American effort -- to make good on America's promise of opportunity for all. To me, the best way to honor my father's life is to continue his work. If you're interested in contributing, please visit TheKingCenter.org and DrumMajorInstitute.org.
Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of Martin Luther King, Jr., is the president and chief executive officer of the King Center and vice chair-designate of the Drum Major Institute.