“Until the nerves and arteries of the nation stir into life, every measure that is attempted will prove vain; for the people are as the human body, and determination and the will to struggle are as the soul, and a soulless body does not move.”
After many years, a memorial to an American who stirred this nation to life has emerged on the National Mall. The first dedicated to an African American, the memorial to civil rights martyr Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has generated considerable emotion and reflection. Recent visitors since it was opened to the public have described it as holy ground. Paul Raushenbush of the Huffington Post sees the memorial as embodying King’s theology. Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. of Princeton calls on visitors, particularly African Americans, to remember their dead, such as Emmet Till, when visiting the memorial. Professor Cornel West, also of Princeton, describes the apocalyptic warnings of a King concerned America “might go to hell owing to its economic injustice, cultural decay and political paralysis.”
For some, the significance of the memorial is as a reminder of King’s dedication to economic justice. Algernon Austin, Director of Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, reminds us that the March on Washington was for jobs and freedom and that King was assassinated while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis Tennessee. King called for an economic bill of rights that would guarantee employment to those who wanted it, organized a “Poor People’s Campaign” and identified the labor movement as being as important as the Civil Rights movement.
With an unemployment rate still at 9.1 percent and some projecting that we will not achieve full employment until 2017, King would probably agree that the jobs crisis is our most pressing national issue. King would also likely be appalled that the burden of unemployment continues to be distributed according to race. Black unemployment is at 16.2 percent, while white unemployment is at 8 percent.
While people throughout the Middle East celebrate a much deserved “Arab Spring,” for too many it remains winter in America. The King memorial should remind us that for those out of work, jobs are freedom. It should move us to take collective action to make sure both industry and government do what is necessary to get people back to work and that workers are paid a fair and livable wage. As King wrote in one of his sermons:
The dispossessed of this nation…live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against structures through which the society is refusing to take means which…are at hand…There are millions of…people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, the will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.