Photo by Andrea Morales

Civil rights are inextricably linked to economic rights, which is the reason Dr. Martin Luther King came to Memphis in 1968, says The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK, released this week by the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.

“Many people are not aware that for Dr. King, the next step in the battle for social justice and civil rights was economic inclusion: the Poor People’s Campaign,” according to the report done in partnership with the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis. The analysis measures progress on several economic indicators in Shelby County since King’s assassination in this city 50 years ago in April.

White and black child poverty in Shelby County. Source: The Poverty Report.

“When Dr. King came to Memphis in 1968, he came to support sanitation workers who were on strike; it was the extension of the fight for civil rights into economic rights. For Dr. King, economic rights were both human rights and civil rights,” according to the report. “In the 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination many things have changed for minorities in America; some for the better, and some for the worse.”

Following are a few takeways from the report, which can be downloaded and read in full here.

The bad news

White and black poverty in Shelby County.
  • Since 1980, childhood poverty for Shelby County children has grown worse.
  • The childhood poverty rate for African-American children is more than four times greater than that for whites.
  • The African-American poverty rate is two and a half times higher than that of whites.
  • Fifty years later, African-Americans still earn half of what whites earn.
  • Even among white-collar workers (managerial, clerical and sales jobs), African-Americans earn half of what white Shelby County residents earn.
  • Mass incarceration comes to Memphis: The incarceration rate for African-Americans grew 50 percent since 1980, while the incarceration rate for whites fell slightly.

The good news

  • The poverty rate for African-Americans in 2016 fell from its peak in 1960.
  • The African-American high-school completion rate increased by 76 percent since Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), which desegregated public schools nationwide.
  • More blacks are earning bachelor’s degrees: The achievement rate has grown from 1.2 percent in 1950 to nearly 20 percent in 2016.

Where do we go from here?

Here’s a streaming video link to a Feb. 27 forum discussing poverty report results at the National Civil Rights Museum. Panelists included: the Rev. Stacy Spencer, president of Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope; Wendi C. Thomas, editor and founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism; Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City; Brad Watkins, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center; and Dr. Kenneth S. Robinson, president and CEO, United Way of the Mid-South.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.