I used to write a labor column for the Santa Maria Times back in the late 90’s. The theme was economic justice. Our nation’s prosperity was booming then, and never had workers’ productivity been so high.
And yet while corporations’ profits were booming and CEO pay packets were skyrocketing, the average wage of workers was steadily declining. How could this be?
And if it continued, how could our nation as a whole continue to prosper? Would we become a two-class society of the rich and the poor, those who wielded power and profit, and those whose sole purpose was to serve them?
Since the 90’s this disparity between the rich and poor in America has only grown and deepened, and eventually led to the collapse of our economy in 2008. The housing crisis was caused by greedy bankers and people who desperately wanted a piece of the American dream but could no longer afford it.
The columns I wrote in the 90’s are as relevant today as they were then. Below is an excerpt from one of these columns that speaks strongly to the issues we face today. It is also a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. whose march on Washington and “I have a dream” speech celebrated its 50th anniversary last week.
I’ll post excerpts from another column later this week that examines the cause of this disparity and how to end it.
Martin Luther King Jr. on Economic Justice
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he had begun to turn his attention away from the civil rights movement to what he considered to be an even more compelling problem, since it at once crossed the color barrier and helped to enforce it. He had discovered that the major divisive force in America was not color, but class. He had found that people who were rich and powerful, whether black or white, shared the same interest in keeping the races segregated, in keeping the poor oppressed, in maintaining the status quo.
He believed that the unequal distribution of wealth was tearing America apart and threatening to make it a two-class society. . . . . He wanted to help build the kind of America that would not tolerate poverty within its borders, that would not allow one class to exploit another, that would not allow the powerful to abuse the powerless.
“There is nothing essentially wrong with power,” he explained. “The problem is that in America power is unequally distributed.”
He said: “Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against justice . . . It is the collusion of immoral power with powerless immorality that constitutes the major crisis of our times.”
This is probably more true today than it was even then.
Dr. King saw that this kind of economic responsibility is not only good business, but a good investment in our future prosperity. He said: “In a sense all of this is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich. The betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one affects all indirectly.”
“Ultimately, a great nation is a compassionate nation,” he wrote. ” No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for the least of these. The first step in a worldwide war against poverty is passionate commitment.”
This is Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy to us, and his challenge: To end poverty and economic injustice by wedding power with love.