Monday marks what would have been the 88th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in a piece of numeric synergy, it also marks the departure from office of our first African-American President after eight years.
I happened to be eight years old on the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Dr. King. My parents both attended the march, and I felt the excitement and energy of some of the marchers at a party they hosted later that day.
Just a few years earlier, in December of 1958, my father, US Senator Jacob Javits, published a prescient piece in Esquire magazine. He made what at the time, in the context of Jim Crow and other overt manifestations of racism, seemed like an outlandish prediction that we would have an African-American President by the year 2000, adding the highly speculative comment that Catholic and Jewish people would also be able to run for high office “without any special handicap.”
President Obama, who was elected in 2008 (my father was off by eight years), made his farewell speech this week, eloquently tying together democracy, race, and economic inequality and noting that, “our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.”
On race, he pointed out that, “For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face”, including, ‘the middle-aged white guy who….has seen his world upended’…” And “For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60’s….and when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised.”
Our country believes in freedom, equal opportunity, and the power of work. Having a decent job is an essential part of achieving the American Dream, and the dream of racial justice described by Dr. King. In fact, in April 1968 he had gone to Memphis where he was killed in order to support striking sanitation workers demanding improvements after two of them were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck—one tragic result of a litany of appalling management decisions that put the lives of those workers at risk.
Even today, many of our conflicts are grounded in work-related issues and our perceptions or misperceptions of one another. This includes skepticism by some of the level of work effort being made by others; resentment among working people about receiving compensation insufficient to support the basics of life – even housing and food, and working conditions that are unhealthy, or make no room for family or civic life; and frustration and despair among others who cannot get jobs at all because employers will not consider hiring them due to their lack of experience or other barriers such as having been convicted of a crime in the past.
The most fundamental prerequisite to a decent life is a good job with a livable income. President-elect Trump has stated that, “We have to get great jobs for people and good paying jobs for people.”
At REDF we have spent the past year expanding the impact of our work around the country, helping our social enterprise business partners create jobs and opportunity for thousands of people who would otherwise face insurmountable barriers, and we plan to keep pushing hard so that at least 50,000 people have the chance to go to work over the coming years. We can do even more if we all pull together.
Americans are skeptical right now that mainstream institutions can deliver the changes we need. It is a moment for action. We are about to go through a ritual that is among the most extraordinary gifts of our democracy—the peaceful transition of power. It occurs at a moment when we also celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a citizen leader whose deep moral and religious convictions and actions led to tremendous changes.
Here is the call to action: it is a moral responsibility to make it possible for everyone who wants to work to have jobs that allow them to build a more stable future, and contribute their talents to this great country. To get there, all of us as individuals and as representatives of business, government, philanthropy, and nonprofits must reconsider what we do and how we do it, change, and find new ways to work together.
This may seem like a pipe dream. Yet I’m sure that many who read my father’s article in 1958 thought it far-fetched that in 2016 an African-American man would this week be making his farewell address after eight years as President of the United States.
Let’s use this moment to do what Americans are so good at: imagine not what is, but what we can do together. It’s time to get down to business.