It's almost fall in 1963. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., already being viewed as a national leader for civil rights, organizes what would be called the "March on Washington", a call for a peaceful demonstration in our nation's capital at the Lincoln Memorial. The march would be a chance for all Americans who believe in equality and justice to let their elected officials know they would not continue to stand idly by while inequality and injustice were still commonplace in this the nation that spoke so proudly of freedom.
An estimated 250,000 people flood along the National Mall and up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. People of all ages, races and economic backgrounds gathered together to call for a new America.
And while the March on Washington is credited with shifting the momentum necessary to pass both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we have to look at where we are fifty years later to determine the lasting impact of the most memorable civil rights movement in our nation's history.
Dr. King noted throughout his speech that true freedom knew no color, and in fact
"....many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom."
The idea behind this movement is that civil rights are human rights, just as women's rights or gay rights are human rights.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
It's easy to read this statement and suggest that because we elected a black president in 2008 that we have realized this dream. But the dream was not speaking to the elite. It was speaking to the poor, the underprivileged.
While median wages have increased just over 20% in the last 23 years, the cost of living has increased 67%. The income of someone making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is $15,080 gross annually. It is estimated that the median gross annual wages needed for basic security is $30,000. This means that for those working in the lowest income brackets, it requires two full time jobs to barely scrape by. Amazingly, the person who makes $15,080 per year is living at 130% of the poverty level, and therefore is not considered in the chart above.
Both of my daughters are taking dual enrollment in high school. This means they are taking classes that give them credit for both high school and college, enabling them to get closer to an AA degree while still in high school. This is a fantastic program that I am extremely grateful for. But then we are told that one of the books for a particular class costs $160. The school offers coupons, and you can search around for used books, and we were fortunate enough to find one for $20, but many of her classmates paid upwards of $80 and a couple had to drop the class because their families couldn't afford the book.
Education should not be a luxury, and it should not perpetuate income inequality. The children of the lawyer are dramatically more likely to receive a college education, where the children of the janitor have to have everything go perfect for them to consider it. Then there's the consideration that the debt incurred by those who have to utilize student loans to get a degree will exceed their income potential when they graduate because the job growth at this point of our "recovery" is in low income jobs.
Indeed while the stock market numbers continue to break record highs, we still have 8% unemployment, and closer to 20% underemployed, meaning people who are working a job below their sill or education level. Corporate profits soar, while wages remain stagnant.
"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the
difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream
deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the
true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men are created equal."
This dream is not just about black opportunity, or gay opportunity, or women's opportunity, it is about human opportunity.
The cynical will hold to the blind theory that those who live at or below the poverty line do so because they are lazy or because they lack the drive to achieve better. But the dream is that the person who sweeps the street is valued in the same way the person who designed it is. It's not that street sweepers should make the same as a CEO, but they should never have to look for a job after they finish the streets so that they can start a family, or buy a small house or put away so their kid can go to college.
It would be naive to say we have not made some progress. But that progress has been too attached to wealth and not to potential. To status and not to character. It would be equally as naive to say the dream is realized. Our nation's greatness should not be measured by the accumulation by the elite, but by the opportunity afforded the least of its citizens. This doesn't mean welfare, it doesn't mean housing and childcare assistance. It means real opportunity to hold a job they can make a living at without having no life to live. It means having access to healthcare without having to have a second job to pay for it. It means having the opportunity to see their children get the education to allow them to exceed based on their ability to perform, not their ability to pay.
Fifty years later, the dream still lives, but the fight is still just as real as it was then.