I went to South Africa a decade ago to understand how a nation can build its inclusive self after centuries of oppression.
To do so, I looked at political messaging in a country where most of the public was excluded from decision-making, employment opportunity and fair housing only a few years prior. The ruling African National Congress had a concise message: “A Better Life for All.” The opposition Democratic Alliance strove for: “An Open Opportunity Society for All.”
Given the poverty in the country, both messages addressed the issue of longstanding economic inequality. Ideological descendants of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk across a partisan divide saw economic inequality as the gravest challenge to the future and security of their republic. My question was how did we in America miss it?
If one had conducted a similar journey to the United States in the decade following Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, I suspect the political sloganeering would not be quite as consistent. One might have heard “peace with dignity,” discussions on the qualities of individual candidates like Richard Nixon, George McGovern or George Wallace, budding conversation on culture war issues, but not the direct appeal to equality in opportunity being key to “A Better Life for All” Americans in the last quarter of the 20th century. While the culture wars defined our political discourse, our ignorance of stark economic inequality undermined our nation, its institutions and faith in government among all groups.
Dr. King’s preaching, particularly near death, recognized that equality among racial groups did not just mean the abolition of state-sanctioned mistreatment of blacks. Equality was not just an event, an integrated lecture, or a Supreme Court decision allowing blacks to obtain lodging at roadside motels. Equality required an opportunity for all citizens to compete for the best educational opportunities, for employment, for a positive future for their children and themselves.
A better life for all is achieved by ensuring equal and open opportunities for all. No one can guarantee equal results, but each of us, as volunteers, employers, churchgoers or neighbors can recognize that helping those who struggle to recognize their gifts and potential addresses far more than a single person. It is how we can rebuild communities, enhance our safety and build unity in our country. A lot of folks around Kansas City and America are poor or struggling. Not enough folks know that someone outside their community or their group is concerned enough about it.
A few years after the South African experience I found myself teaching at a maximum-security prison. Most of my students were poor and came from all over: big cities, towns, suburbs and foreign countries. One student asked why I volunteered. My answer was that because most of them were going back home to some community, I wanted them to have an opportunity to do something when they got there.
Society could chastise them in perpetuity, we could shake our heads at a life cycle that got them incarcerated, we could reform laws that kept them there, but someone needed to try to help rebuild people to take advantage of positive opportunities in their future. That’s true on the outside as well.
A better life for all, an open opportunity society, and King’s teachings suggest not that progress is me as an African-American sitting on a legislative body now or people merely acknowledging centuries of disparate treatment but that progress is all of us recognizing where people come from, their background and their experience, and working to create for everyone an opportunity to be successful and to have something to strive for.
Quinton D. Lucas is a Kansas City councilman and a lecturer at the University of Kansas School of Law.