“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Years after he had a dream, long after he wrote a letter from a Birmingham jail, more than a decade after the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a radical redistribution of power. That’s his prescription for what ails us.
In that same 1967 speech, “The Three Evils of Society,” King made this disquieting declaration: “The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor — both black and white, here and abroad.”
This is the King whose death we mark on Wednesday — but don’t expect to see many (any?) Fortune 500 companies quote that King. Too many companies prefer the dreamy King, the one who would be satisfied if black children and white children could hold hands. The businesses that thrive on the exploitation of the poor don’t want to be reminded of their complicity.
And most of the time, the rest of us play along. That includes those of us who just want to avoid conflict and even journalists who need access to those business executives to do their jobs and news outlets that rely on advertising to keep the lights on.
For the past year, I’ve served as the editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. It’s an online nonprofit reporting project that as King said, “seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
The issue is workers, jobs and wages. King came to Memphis in 1968 to support underpaid garbage workers, who did dirty, dangerous jobs for poverty wages.
Today, Memphis is the poorest large metropolitan area in the nation. Shelby County’s racial income gap has remained steady since the federal government started keeping records in 1980: Black households earn 50 percent of what white households do.
That’s why MLK50: Justice Through Journalism conducted a wage survey of the area’s largest employers, based on Memphis Business Journal’s list. We asked about health insurance and vacation time and we wanted to know whether they pay their workers enough to live on.
According to the MIT Living Wage calculator, a living wage is $10.75 an hour for a single, childless adult in the Memphis metro area.
The city of Memphis was the first to respond to our survey — it does pay all of its workers a living wage.
In fact, 85 percent of city workers make more than $15 an hour — which is the midpoint between the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and what the minimum wage would be if it had kept pace with productivity. This is good news; the public sector has long been a place where African-American workers could find stable employment even when the private sector kept them concentrated in low-wage, low-skill jobs.
More than a third of the companies contacted refused to reply to the survey at all. And several others sent vague statements that dodged survey questions about health insurance, predictable schedules and the use of temporary workers.
But the solution to poverty is simple: More money. If you have enough money and resources, you’re not poor.
The sole source of income for most of us is our job. To let April 4 pass without confronting employers that do not pay their workers enough to live on feels disingenuous. Maybe even cowardly.
King would not be satisfied if the totality of this MLK50 moment was street signs and galas, symposiums and marches, but on April 5, we returned to business as usual as the gap between the rich and poor widens.
It doesn’t have to stay this way. But if it does, King’s prediction is dire.
“If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life,” he said, “she too will go to hell.”
This column was also published in the Memphis Business Journal. Wendi C. Thomas was the metro columnist at The Commercial Appeal from 2003 to 2014. She was a 2016 fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University . A contributing writer to the Christian Science Monitor and The Undefeated, Thomas is also a senior writing fellow with the Center for Community Change.
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. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.