When the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 while in Memphis to support the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees sanitation workers’ strike, he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice. He believed that economic security, as well as racial equality, was a basic human right. “What good is the right to sit at a lunch counter,” Dr. King asked, “if one can’t afford the price of a meal?”
In many ways the Poor People’s Campaign is still with us. Today in Arizona more than 2 million Arizonans are considered working poor, living at or below the federal poverty guideline. More than 40 percent of the households receiving emergency food assistance have at least one person who is working. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. Too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by — without getting ahead. According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, the ratio between average American CEO pay and worker pay is now 303-to-1.
What are we saying about the respect we have for work and working families when we coolly tolerate a system in which a person can work full time in this affluent country and still be condemned to a life of poverty, including all the denial of opportunity that such indecent wages bring? It is not acceptable that we treat workers as little more than obstacles in the path to bigger profits. To commemorate the birth of Dr. King, I would suggest that the business community work with the labor community to make economic justice a reality for all people.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday is a day set aside for measuring ourselves against the yardstick of King’s hope and dream. It is a time to reflect on our moral obligation to condemn social and economic systems that rob people of dignity and equal opportunity. It is a time to remember the philosophy of nonviolent action for creating positive social change. To pay tribute to those still in the struggle against racism and injustice. To renew our commitment to love, not hate; to show understanding, not anger; and to make peace, not war. The holiday invites us to act — to act in a way that reaches out to those who are among the most vulnerable and in a way that reminds our elected officials that investment in human capital pays great dividends.
Thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all other civil rights activists and advocates of human rights, for challenging our great nation to live up to the historic principles outlined in the preamble of our Constitution in that all people regardless of race, color, or creed would be included in “We the People.”