Fifty years ago Dr Martin Luther King Jr gave one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century. We all know immediately the phrase “I have a dream” and many of us then and ever since have wished that Dr King could have lived to see his dream fulfilled. Sadly, even if he had not been so brutally cut down before his work was done, he would not feel that his dream has come true in modern America even though much has been improved by his speech and by all those thousands who marched on Washington. Dr. King’s dream was visionary and moving but it was also about basic economics drawing unanswerable attention to the gap between rich and poor. A gap that has widened in the last fifty years. These words still have a resonance:
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” Martin Luther King Jnr., 28 August 1963.
President Barrack Obama could never have avoided referencing that important speech delivered half a century ago but that he not only drew our attention to it but also made a heart-felt and moving speech of his own that reflects that he too realizes that Dr King’s dream is still somewhere beyond the horizon. May both men find vindication before another fifty years pass. Here is part of President Obama’s speech:
“For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?
As President Clinton indicated, the position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.
For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate. Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this country in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health
The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call — this remains our great unfinished business.
The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class, reduced the bargaining power of American workers.
And our politics has suffered. Entrenched interests — those who benefit from an unjust status quo resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal, marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools — that all these things violated sound economic principles.
We’d be told that growing inequality was the price for a growing economy, a measure of the free market — that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.
And then there were those elected officials who found it useful to practice the old politics of division, doing their best to convince middle-class Americans of a great untruth, that government was somehow itself to blame for their growing economic insecurity — that distant bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant.” President Barrack Obama 28 August 2013.