04/02/2012 07:43 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

Resurrecting the Cause for Which King Died

44 years after Dr. King's death, jobs are still the No. 1 issue in America

April 4 will be the 44th anniversary of the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped out on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and was cut down at the age of 39. He had just asked that his favorite hymn, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," be sung at the event he was to attend that night; instead it was sung by his friend Mahalia Jackson at his funeral.

Most people know the King remembrances. First, the day in January set aside as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration; and second, the April observance of his death date. King's name is most frequently associated with civil rights, integration and nonviolent protest. What we should be thinking about, however, is what this preacher also was preaching: economic justice. In other words, jobs.

It's true that Dr. King had a dream about racial integration -- hallelujah for that. Today I think he'd say: "Can't you all get over this color thing?"

In King's speech against the war in Vietnam at the Riverside Church one year before his assassination, he said we cannot fulfill the American dream if we are using up all our resources in war, not just making that a dream deferred, but of the sin-sick soul: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift" he said, "is approaching spiritual death."

Integrate? Fine. Stop the war? Fine. But economic redistribution? Economic justice? Spreading the resources so that all God's children have a place at the table? All good, all important. But neither racial discrimination or segregation nor war in Vietnam got him killed. It was the issue of economic justice.

Oh sure, you could talk about economic justice, but King was getting ready to do something about it. The very week he died, he was in the process of planning the Poor People's Campaign to go to Washington, D.C. to document that poor people in this nation are citizens just like everybody. He was reminding us about the Constitution of the United States that talked about inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and all God's children ought to have food to eat and clothes to wear. They ought to have jobs and opportunity and some place to stay. All God's children have a right. He was organizing to come to Washington and he said we will tie up the legislative process--we will bring white poor people from Appalachia, Latinos from the border states, bring poor people from the urban centers and say to our nation, "We are Americans too and we have a right to all of the wonderful bounty which God has bestowed on our great nation."

Dr. King was still committed to "I have a dream" when his life was cut short, but it wasn't a black folk's dream. It was an American dream -- "a dream yet unfulfilled" -- that is, the dream of reaching the Promised Land of economic justice as well as equality and peace.

I would like to challenge citizens of today with this admonition. Every time you hear, I have a dream, please make sure people understand it's not just about black folk and white folk getting together. Every time you hear it please make sure that folks know it's not just about a war in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq or possibly Iran or North Korea. Please make sure that it's a dream about King that has to do with economic justice.

On April 4 this year, a group of us leaders on the Upper West Side of Manhattan are convening a coalition of local and national legislators; interfaith, labor and civil rights activists and leaders; and an esteemed panel of journalists and newsmakers for a symbolic evening of history, re-enactment, riveting discussion and healing songs. Our dedicated interfaith, inter-disciplinary group will pick up the piece of King's mantle that people have let die -- jobs. With more than 12.8 million Americans unemployed, jobs, economic freedom, living wage and worker justice remain the greatest challenges this country faces.

The timing is prophetic. Dr. King was slain in Memphis where he had travelled to show his support for striking black sanitation workers. He was about jobs. We will mobilize churches, mosques and synagogues throughout the country, public and private industry, local governments and Congress to create jobs and to lobby for a comprehensive jobs solution by August 28, 2013 -- the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. We will make jobs a priority in the American consciousness.

We heard the "I have a dream" speech, but here is a speech not often heard, but deeply reflective of King's commitment to economic justice:

"This will be the day when we shall bring into full realization the American dream -- a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man's skin determined the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality -- that is the dream. And as we struggle to make racial and economic justice a reality, let us maintain faith in the future. We will confront difficulties and frustrating moments in the struggle to make justice a reality, but we must believe somehow that these problems can be solved." (December 11, 1961)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 5:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
(Specific actions at 6:02, when Dr. King was shot, and at 7:04, when he died)
Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive @ 120th Street, New York, N.Y. 10027