Many people remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his eloquence and moral authority in calling for racial equality. What some forget, perhaps conveniently, is economic justice was a central tenet of his work and teachings. But just how much economic progress has been made since King’s death in Memphis 50 years ago on April 4?

We aim to find out.

MLK50 has sent wage and benefit surveys to the 25 largest employers in the Memphis area, as listed in the Memphis Business Journal, representing 163,025 employees. To craft this query, we consulted with PolicyLink, a research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity; Center for Community Change, empowering low-income people; and Data for Good.

The 10-question survey asks companies what percentage of their workers earn a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a living wage ($10.75 an hour for a single, childless adult) and $15 an hour, the pay level of the Fight for $15 campaign.

In the current political climate, with business-friendly conservatives controlling the White House and the Tennessee legislature, any hope for higher wages will have to come from private employers themselves. Earlier this year, First Horizon National Corp., parent company of First Tennessee Bank, raised the wages of its lowest-paid employees to $15 an hour. Regions Financial Corp., parent company of Regions Bank, announced in January it would boost its hourly minimum wage to $15 an hour by the end of 2018.

“We think large employers, government anchor institutions and large retailers could play a role in increasing wages,” said Angel Ross, a PolicyLink program associate.

Source: Memphis Business Journal

“A great example is Costco and Trader Joe’s.They are emphasizing investment in employees as a growth [strategy],” Ross added.

Memphis, where King was killed, is the country’s poorest large metro area. The black child poverty rate is the highest in the country, according to a 2017 report by University of Memphis sociologist Dr. Elena Delavega. These children will be tomorrow’s labor force and business owners, but more than half live in homes with not enough money to make ends meet. In the Memphis metro area, the racial gap in median household incomes is vast: For whites, it’s $67,781; $35,539 for blacks; and $42,244 for Hispanics.

When he was killed April 4, 1968, King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign, a massive show of civil disobedience in the nation’s capital to demand a comprehensive federal economic package to address income and wage inequality. Turns out in 1968, the minimum wage of $1.60 an hour was the peak of spending power. Measured in 2018 dollars, that’s about $11.45.

On March 31, 1968, King delivered a speech at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., calling people of conscience to work toward easing poverty, saying: “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.