Why MLK’s Ideas Matter More than Ever

In his April 4, 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”[1] King daringly levied fierce criticism of a society, he argued, that had begun to value objects over people and resort to warfare in the name of peace.

Critical of U.S. military policies Rev. King described the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He also believed that U.S. budgetary priorities of increasing military spending over social programs to be an indication of America’s moral decline. King said:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

In the speech King also addressed economic inequality. He said that America needed to “undergo a radical revolution of values.” Specifically he urged the nation to move from a “thing-oriented society,” valuing “profit motives and property rights” over people, towards a nation who fully honored the value of human life.

King’s message is as poignant and relevant as ever given the contemporary disparity between wealth and power between the rich and poor. Today the richest 400 Americans possess more wealth than the poorest 60% of U.S. Households. As confirmed by PoliticFact.com, the 2012 net worth of the Forbes 400 was $1.37 trillion dollars, while the poorest 60% of U.S. households was valued at $1.26 trillion dollars.[2]

The 2011 Census Bureau report found that 1 in 6 Americans (46.2 million) lived in poverty in 2010, the highest rate of poverty in 50 years.[3] A separate report found that nearly 1 in 6 Americans (almost 15%) are on food stamps.[4]

Research shows that both people of color and young families are particularly vulnerable to poverty. A Northeastern University study found that, in 2010, 37% of young families with children were living in poverty.[5] A disheartening number of white, non-Hispanics live in poverty, about 20 million or nearly 10%. But the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in poverty is more than twice as high. The poverty rate is 27.4% among blacks and 26.6% among Hispanics.

Indeed, King’s vision of racial equality continues to go unfulfilled for the vast majority of people of color in America. As of December 2011, unemployment rates among blacks are twice that of whites, 15.8% compared to 7.5%.[6] Black unemployment has consistently been double that of white unemployment since the government began tracking such figures in 1972.[7]

According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, adult African Americans were arrested on drug charges at rates that were 2.8 to 5.5 times as high as those of white adults in every year from 1980 through 2007 despite the fact whites and blacks engage in drug offenses at comparable rates.[8]

The volatile cocktail of marginalization, poverty, unemployment, and the unfairly high rates of arrest have led to what some call a human rights crisis in the black community. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and professor of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, said that “in large urban areas, half or more than half of working-age African-American men now have criminal records and are the subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”[9]

[1] Video/Audio of “Beyond Vietnam”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Qf6x9_MLD0&feature=related

[2] PolitiFact “Michael Moore says 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined” http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2011/mar/10/michael-moore/michael-moore-says-400-americans-have-more-wealth-/

[3] Democracy Now. 14 September 2011, “U.S. Census Reports Reveals One in Six Americans Are Poor, One in Five Children Live in Poverty” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/9/14/us_census_reports_reveals_one_in

[4] Democracy Now. 14 September 2011, “U.S. Census Reports Reveals One in Six Americans Are Poor, One in Five Children Live in Poverty”

[5] Democracy Now. 20 September 2011, “Study: 37 Percent of Young Families with Children Were Living in Poverty Last Year” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/9/20/headlines#4

[6] CNN. 6 January 2012. “Unemployment falls…but not for blacks.” http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/06/news/economy/black_unemployment_rate/index.htm

[7] CNN. 6 January 2012. “Unemployment falls…”

[8] Human Rights Watch. 2 March 2009. “US: Drug Arrests Skewed by Race.” http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/03/02/us-drug-arrests-skewed-race ; “Decades of Disparity” (report): http://www.hrw.org/node/81105/section/2

[9] Democracy Now. 13 January 2012 “On Eve of MLK Day, Michelle Alexander & Randall Robinson on the Mass Incarceration of Black America”  http://www.democracynow.org/2012/1/13/on_eve_of_mlk_day_michelle


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