On January 20, we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, achievements, and his dream for our nation.
While most Americans recognize Dr. King as a civil rights leader striving for equality of opportunity, he was also a champion for the dispossessed, the downtrodden, and forgotten. He fought for the rights of the poor, questioning how a country with so much wealth and prosperity could tolerate and excuse the continued suffering of so many in our nation. He was dedicated to the goal of eradicating poverty, ensuring economic justice, and achieving access to quality educational opportunities for all our children. He championed the plight of the poor, organizing the “Poor People’s Campaign,” pushed Congress for a poor people’s bill of rights, and ultimately sacrificed his life standing up for fair wages with Memphis sanitation workers.
Indeed, his dream was to ensure that every American, regardless of race, color, creed or economic circumstance, had real access to the American Dream.
In the nearly 44 years since Dr. King’s death, America and Texas have made great strides in some areas, but only small, halting steps in others. Even in good times, Texas has done a very poor job of providing for the poorest among us. We have the highest percentage of uninsured in the country and one of the highest poverty rates.
This is the reality that is not discussed enough today, but Dr. King would be out in front, telling truth to power. We have become obsessed with the performance of the stock market and 401Ks, but those investments do not reflect the reality of millions of Texans and millions more Americans who see no benefit from a healthy quarterly bottom line. To echo Robert Kennedy, the Dow Jones doesn’t measure the strength of our families, the health of our citizens, or the quality of our public debate. Nor does not measure the widening gap between those with and those striving to keep up.
Last month, President Obama gave a stirring speech on the lack of economic mobility and its impact on accessing the American Dream. He said that “a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility … has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain – that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.” The President called it “the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American.”
We certainly see the impacts in Texas, which ranks among the highest in the country in income inequality. Nationwide, income inequality has been on the rise for decades and is now its highest since 1928, and the impacts of the recent recession have only magnified these inequities. For example, 95 percent of the income gains from 2009-12 were captured by the wealthiest one percent. The top one perfect saw their incomes climb 31.4 percent, while the bottom 99 percent saw growth of only 0.4 percent.
Today, even more so than during Dr. King’s life, the dividing line in America is just as much about green as it is black, white, or brown. All too often, it’s not the content of one’s character – it’s the contents of one’s wallet.
This is obviously not meant to in any way diminish the unbelievable courage Dr. King and all those who led the civil rights cause displayed, or lessen the struggles and tribulations they endured while fighting for that dream. They risked their lives for the ideal that all men are created equal and changed America – and the world – for the better.
But that does not mean the work is done.
The vast majority of Americans have not reached the mountain top, and it is the job of public policymakers to ensure everyone has access to the tools necessary to make the climb.
This means investing in our children’s schools so that Texas no longer must face the specter of an unconstitutional school finance system. This means expanding Medicaid so that our federal tax dollars can be spent here at home on the hundreds of thousands of uninsured Texans that fear the next sickness or spill will result in bankruptcy. And this means raising the minimum wage so that all Texans get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.
Instead of merely celebrating the life of Dr. King with rhetoric, let’s stand together and honor what he stood for by taking meaningful action towards the realization of his dream. Today, let us rededicate ourselves to his call to action to shed light on inequality and demand justice for all. Dr. King’s dream is alive and well in our community today, and I am grateful to all who fight alongside me to ensure it is realized.