Martin Luther King had a dream for this nation. It is an important dream. The dream was more than voting rights for people of color. The dream was more than desegregation of lunch counters, buses, and schools. The dream was more than little black boys and little black girls holding hands with little white boys and little white girls. These are all wonderful aspects of Martin Luther King’s dream but it is not the whole of his dream.
His dream included ending the terror of living in America as a black person. And that is a much nobler dream than all the other pieces of the dream that people speak about when they talk about King’s dream.
The emotional history of African Americans in our nation is one of terror . The dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. was to rid this terror from the experience of people of color in this nation. The world that Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into included this fact: If an African American even so much as looked at a white person, that African American might at best have been beaten unconscious or worst lynched from a tree. With no consequences to the white people who committed such heinous acts. No person should live a life where fear is the norm.
The gift Martin Luther King, Jr. gave to African Americans in the 1950s/60s was to no longer be afraid of the consequences of seeking to do what is morally the right thing. When confronted with the morally right thing—sitting at a lunch counter, remaining seated on a bus, requesting voting registration, confronting Jim Crow laws, refusing to be humiliated—white America responded with violence to put African Americans back into their ‘assigned’ place of subjugation. When people stand up for their rights and are willing to absorb violence and not strike back, not defend their bodies, then those people are free. They have reclaimed their agency to self-determination in a society that denied this basic human right.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was expanding his dream beyond racism to include classism. King was speaking up about the effects of poverty in America. He was speaking up about the effects of exploitive work practices on the white and black poor in America. His last days were to apply pressure on the city of Memphis regarding the work conditions and poverty wages of sanitation workers who were on strike for better treatment. His assassination on the 4th of April 1968 brought an end to the focus on poverty in America. The status of the average American worker has deteriorated ever since. The class divide in this country has not seen such a widening gap since the eve before the Crash in October 1929.
I believe that if King had lived, he would have achieved the same for people of poverty that he had for people of color. He would have instilled the ability to face their own fears of not being able to provide for their families by organizing and demanding justice in the work place.
It has been fifty years since King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Fifty years to take his dream and move it beyond dreaming and into reality. But it hasn’t happened. The time is now.
The march had a list of goals that are still relevant today as they were then. Here is a sampling of the goals for the March on Washington that may not be well known:
• A Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring;
• A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide;
• Enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from States that disenfranchise citizens;
• A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas
Do any of these issues still sound familiar? In 1963 the federal minimum wage was $1.25 an hour. In 2014 dollars that pay scale would purchase the same as $9.58. Our federal minimum wage is $7.25. This amount does not allow a family of four to afford the average rent. The proposal in 1963 was to increase minimum wage to $2.00 an hour or in 2014 dollars–$15.33. There is a current push to raise the Federal minimum wage to $10 an hour. This is a start but it still does not even bring the middle class back to the purchasing power they had in 1963.
Alabama does not have a state minimum wage. The federal minimum wage only applies to businesses of over $500K, businesses that involve interstate commerce, and hospitals and schools. Domestic workers are only covered if they work 8 hours or more a week for one or more employees. Therefore there are many people, such as farm workers, who may not even be earning minimum wage because their jobs fall outside of the purview of the federal law.
I recently saw a poster that said The Middle Class is too big to fail. If the Middle Class fails in our nation, then all our ideals collapses as a failed experiment. It is time for us to move beyond dreaming and address minimum wage for all workers, including restaurant workers whose minimum wage of $2.13 has remained static for 22 years.
The business community has lobbied successfully against such measures. They are only looking out for their shareholders, those people who are in the top 10% of controlling the wealth of the nation. A recent report came out stating that 85 people control the same about wealth as half of the world’s population . We are approaching 7 billion people on this planet.
Winnie Byanyima, the Oxfam executive director stated, “Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations. We will soon live in a world where equality of opportunity is just a dream. ” Dream in this case means fantasy, not feasible goals like Martin Luther King’s dream.
But the argument against a rise in minimum wage is that it would take money from the shareholders, approximately $11 Billion dollars based on a 2007 study so this is a dated figure, but only $1.6 Billion of these dollars would benefit the working poor. It is argued that the Earned Income Tax Credit would be a better way to go as it can be adjusted upwards, cost $2.4 Billion of which $1.4 billion would benefit poor families. But if we as a people of faith even have an inkling of considering remediating income inequality and improving the quality of the lives of the poor, then we need to consider doing both; raise the minimum wage and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit.
A recent empirical study of what happens when poor people get cash showed something rather amazing. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino when it opened in 1996 decided to proportionately share its profits with its 8,000 members. A professor from Duke University had already been following the rural children with a good percentage of them being Cherokee. A substantial baseline had been established over a course of four years prior to the casino opening.
In 2001, when each Cherokee was receiving an additional $6,000 in income a year, the poverty level of the Cherokees had dropped by half. But what was also discovered is that the frequency of behavioral problems within the poorest of these families dropped by 40%. It was also discovered that the earlier this money arrived in their children’s lives the better their children’s mental health. What was also discovered is that the supplemental income saved money in the community in the long run. The children were one third less likely to abuse drugs or to have psychiatric issues as adults and this reduced community costs. On schedule Highschool graduations increased as there were fewer children repeating classes. This means that students were able to focus on their studies and not worry about their next meal.
The amount of money the casino disbursed amongst its members was not enough for anyone to not need employment but it was a substantial unconditional cushion. As a society, we might not be able or even want to provide what King advocated for which was a guaranteed minimum income to abolish poverty in this nation. But if we were to raise the minimum wage and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, we would be offering the same type of assistance as the Cherokee Casino. Just as the members received a lump sum check disbursement, the income refund check would be a similar boost. We would give back personal control to those who are desperately poor in this nation. It is time to move beyond dreaming and working towards creating the society that we know we can be.
The 14th amendment was as much an issue in King’s day as it is today. In fact, it may be even argued that the problems this amendment caused in our society have only compounded in the years since the March on Washington in 1963.
The 14th amendment which was written to grant full citizenship to emancipated slaves is now being used to enslave all of American workers. It is said that a law has no real influence until it is faced with litigation. It is in the litigation that the law comes alive and develops teeth. This amendment was litigated 150 times between its passage and 1896. Only 15 of these cases had to with the citizenship of the African American, the remainder had to do with the personhood rights of the corporation. We have seen the devastation this gross misinterpretation of this amendment has caused throughout the 20th century and now with the Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United four years ago; our very democracy is at stake. Citizens United has created the ability for Corporations to have the privilege to create and purchase passage of laws that benefit solely the shareholder’s profit and not serve their purpose of serving society’s welfare. As we observe our society today, it is clear that corporations do not have society’s welfare best interest at heart.
We have created a protected class in giving corporations personhood. They are able to poison our water supply, cause irreversible environmental damage through oil spills, and destroy the economic lives of thousands without assuming any accountability for their actions. We have allowed corporations to become too big to fail which has placed the very quality of our lives at risk when they violate laws and are allowed to continue to do so after paying what amounts to a mere penny of a fine.
We have seen corporations in the form of for-profit prisons make contract deals with the government that turns people into nameless quotas to be filled. This requires the creation of laws that change misdemeanors into felonies and condemns a class of people to a life of perpetual dehumanizing institutionalization. Our nation represents 25% of all incarcerations in the world, yet we only represent 5% of the world’s population. Contrary to our national myth we are not the land of the free; we are the land of the incarcerated.
The 5th and 14th amendments should be ensuring due process and equal protection under the law. But instead we are feeding our corporations quotas by creating laws such as stop and frisk. Minorities are disproportionately singled out for stop and frisk in direct violation of the 14th amendment . It is time to move beyond dreaming and reclaim the 14th amendment for its intended purpose, strip it of its litigated purpose and assure that all citizens, born or naturalized, have equal protection under the law.
We live in a state that still allows discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We shame our young LGBTQI teens by teaching abstinence until marriage and ignore the realities of their lives. We still require our Alabama schools to teach homosexuality is a criminal offense and do not consider the ramifications of such a statement on our gay children. Housing and employment discrimination against the queer community is still a reality. Homophobia is still an acceptable behavior in the state. We need to support pending legislation that will protect their rights and limit the damage that homophobic religions in our state spew on these innocent lives. We need to move beyond dreaming and stand up for our siblings of sexual and gender diversities.
We need to move beyond dreaming that things were different and begin embodying our values in our daily lives. T. E. Lawrence also known as Lawrence of Arabia stated “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible. ”
How we decide to move beyond dreaming is open for discussion but the issues that Rev. Martin Luther King sought to address are still with us today. We must not be afraid to speak out about them. If we move together in community to address these issues we need not be cowering in fear. Sister Simone of Nuns on the Bus said, “The antidote to fear is community. In community, we know we are not alone and that someone has my back. This shared responsibility calls us to exercise our civil obligations. In fact, community can only exist if everyone contributes to the shaping of our society.”
Let us as a community move beyond dreaming of how things might be into the light of day of making it so. Blessed Be.
[Sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on January 26 2014 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond
http://modeledbehavior.com/2010/10/26/why-the-minimum-wage-should-go/ The link for this study actually sent me to the Congressional Budget Office’s study from 1986 and not to the 2007 study it reportedly was quoting.