The 50th anniversary commemorations of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech have already begun. As much as I appreciate the increased attention that's directed to Dr. King's vision and work, I fear too many of these events and statements will remember only half of his dream, forgetting a crucial element: economic justice.
The march is rightly remembered as a landmark moment in the campaign against Jim Crow segregation, an evil system that should have ended far sooner than it did. But let's not forget the march's full name: March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
That's right. Jobs came first. And three of the march's 10 demands were specifically economic:
• A massive federal program to train and place all workers -- Negro and white -- on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.
• A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this).
• A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.
Economic justice was central to Dr. King's message, and it grew more so over time. King organized the Poor People's Campaign in 1967, and spoke out strongly about economic inequality. He denounced an economic system that he described as "socialism for the rich and free markets for the poor."
It's not hard to imagine what King would think of the response to an economic crash in which big banks were bailed out but families who lost their homes due to predatory and unethical lending got pennies on the dollar -- if they got any assistance at all.
"True compassion," King said, "is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
The American system is still producing beggars and it still needs restructuring.
This stuff makes us uncomfortable. It's much easier to remember sentiments about people being judged "by the content of their character" -- a statement no one would argue with now -- than to recognize our failure to address economic injustices that may have shifted in form over the last 50 years, but whose overall structure remains disturbingly constant.
So let us rededicate ourselves to creating a system that produces economic security rather than desperation. America can do better than it's doing today -- for African Americans and for Americans of all colors trying to keep the American Dream alive. I would never presume to speak for Dr. King, but it's pretty safe to guess that he'd still be arguing for a minimum wage that guarantees a decent living, protections for workers and a massive effort to put people to work in good jobs at good wages.
And a 21st century dream can go beyond those elements to include:
• Concrete actions to keep the doors to homeownership open for working families, not just investors and the wealthy.
• Broadened pathways to entrepreneurship, making sure that government and corporate contracts aren't limited to good-old-boy networks, so businesses owned by people of color and women get a fair shot.
• Reinforced (or even greater) efforts to guarantee good, affordable health care to every man, woman and child in America.
• Harnessing the drive to clean up our environment and stem global warming as an engine of economic growth in struggling, underserved communities.
Jim Crow segregation is, happily, dead and buried, but let's not kid ourselves into thinking Dr. King's dream has been fulfilled. The toughest part of the challenge King laid before us -- to address economic inequality and give all Americans have a fair shot at security and even prosperity -- has barely been addressed.