Fifty-one years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis while on a mission to support underpaid workers. MLK50 wanted to know if today, the area’s non-profit organizations pay enough to live on.

Here’s how we tried to find out.

  • To craft a survey, we consulted with PolicyLink, a California-based research and action institute focused on racial and economic equity; Center for Community Change, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works to empower low-income people; and Data for Good, a Memphis company that develops evaluation tools. We also consulted a leading human resources professional to be sure that the questions could be answered easily by HR departments.
  • Using the Memphis Business Journal nonprofits list, in mid-March we queried the 25 organizations on the list for “Memphis-Area Charitable Organizations: Ranked by Public Support in 2016” and 25 organizations on the “Memphis-Area Social and Human Services Nonprofits: Ranked by Program Service Expenses 2016.” Some of the organizations overlapped. We also queried a 30 faith-based institutions, and four other organizations, including a union, Teamsters Local 667.
  • The 10-question survey asks organizations what percentage of their workers earn a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour; a living wage ($11.06 an hour for a single, childless adult); and $15 an hour, the goal of the Fight for $15 campaign.

Here, the issue of low pay has a special resonance: Memphis, where King was killed, is in 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 professor Dr. Elena Delavega. These children will be tomorrow’s labor force and business owners, but more than half live in homes without 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 on 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 on 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 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 Surdna Foundation and Community Change.