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How much economic progress have we made since Martin Luther King, Jr's "I have a dream" speech?


Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering "I Have a Dream" at the 1963 Washington D.C. Civil Rights March. Photo in the Public Domain.
"America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King is rightly remembered as a leader in the fight for civil rights, but what we forget (or more likely, if you're of my generation or younger, never learned) is that he was also a strong proponent of economic justice. He saw that even after civil rights gains, systemic economic injustices were still denying the American dream to people of color and the poor.


In his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, he said, "We have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice." In 1967 he claimed that America had moved from "the era of civil rights to the era of human rights" and spoke about the need for a "radical redistribution of economic and political power" to address economic disparities. Starting to feel uncomfortable yet?


As I write this, it's been sixty years since King's "I Have a Dream." How much progress have we made toward economic equality in that time?


Unfortunately, economic inequality in the U.S. has only increased since 1963. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve, while there has been some reduction in overall poverty, the gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population has grown over the past several decades. Furthermore, the racial wealth gap has grown, with the divide between Black and Hispanic households and white households only growing.


Several factors have contributed to this increase in inequality, including government policies that have allowed the erosion of organized labor, the decline of progressive taxation, and the weakening of social safety net programs.


Several policies and actions can be taken to reverse this injustice, including (but certainly not limited to):

  • investing in affordable and social housing

  • baby bonds

  • canceling student loans

  • investing in education and training

  • affordable, guaranteed healthcare

  • increasing access to banking and financial services

  • payday loan reform

  • raising the minimum wage and index it to inflation

  • increasing taxes on the most wealthy

  • strengthening and protecting unions and workers' rights

  • permanently expanding the child tax credit

To truly honor Dr. King's legacy, we must continue the fight to provide economic security, justice, and opportunity for all.

"The time is always right to do what is right." - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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