On Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic and indelible “I Have a Dream” speech that has become an American rhetorical treasure.
By THE REV. VERNON PERCY HOWARD JR.
Special to The Star
His substance, cadence, passion, logic, conviction, spirit, creativity and prophetic fervor are parts of what made this message to America an iconic and indelible message for all time.
King referred to the Emancipation Proclamation in his speech as a “great beacon of light” and then went on to declare, “But 100 years later still the Negro is not free.” King framed the inequities America devised against blacks within the dual contexts of economics and justice.
He was clear regarding the purpose of the March on Washington: “In a sense we’ve come to cash a check. … But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. We’ve come to cash a check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
The language of economic justice was both figurative and literal for King and the 300,000 voices who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. King, in poetry and prophetic imagination, described the black condition as “living on a lonely island of poverty amid a vast ocean of prosperity.”
Today, more than 50 years after King’s proclamation, African-Americans across the nation and blacks right here in Kansas City’s urban core are still stuck on that lonely island. It is often a dark island haunted by joblessness, weapon proliferation, drug trafficking and abuse, undereducation, economic divestment, crime and violence, and hopelessness and despair.
Our aspirations rose over the course of the movement, placing higher priority on earning money rather than earning acceptance from a nation that never intended to give it from the beginning.
King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with a host of other key leaders and civil rights organizations they led, possessed clear goals for the march and the subsequent work that was to come leading up to 1968. They had planned to assemble thousands more in Washington, D.C., for the unveiling and launch of what was termed “The Poor People’s Campaign,” a national, multiracial, grassroots, interorganizational (faith-based and secular) movement aimed at mobilizing the nation and empowering those at the economic bottom and margins of society.
This is where King was heading when he was shot and killed.
The central and documented direction of King and the SCLC included the following, referred to in his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”:
• African-American business development and fostering aided by the black consumer and all consumers of fair mindedness.
• Strengthening of organized labor bargaining for fair wages and worker benefits.
• Operation Breadbasket — including pressuring businesses and industries that benefit from black and poor consumers to hire and promote qualified blacks, with the threat of boycott.
• Pressuring white-owned businesses that benefit from black and poor consumers to invest in black-owned banks and community banks committed to serving urban, impoverished and/or underdeveloped communities.
• Comprehensive voter registration, education and ballot action by blacks and the working poor.
• Guaranteed income for all workers tied to the national median income in order to de-institutionalize poverty. That would include new forms of work that aid the common good, given that the free market appears to possess no ability to create full employment for those who desire to work or to eradicate poverty wages.
• World-wide war on poverty led by the richest nations.
We have found his footprints in Kansas City.
Join the movement on Jan. 20 at our SCLC Forum and Mass Celebration beginning at 3:30 p.m. at the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City as we of all races and faiths across the metro area stand to rebirth this great movement.
The Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr. is senior pastor of Second Baptist Church and vice-president for social justice at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.