Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK's Vision of Social Justice

The greatest warrior for social justice in the last century in the US was Martin Luther King, Jr. With great respect to dre cummings, I do not think that MLK ever argued in favor of economic equality. Instead he simply argued for equality of opportunity and equality of rights. Thus, in his most famous speech, above, he wanted to free people of color from police brutality, poverty, segregation, and impaired political rights. His dream consisted of universal freedom for all where people were not judged "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." You may scour this speech for any reference to economic equality and come up empty.

Having said that, there is no doubt that King would be alarmed, angered and disappointed by the state of economic inequality present in America today. For example, King would be outraged by the fact that more than one in five American children now live in poverty, including nearly 40 percent of black children, 35 percent of Latino children, and more than 12 percent of white children. How can we live with this sin against our children? How can we tolerate three time more black children than white children living in poverty over four decades after the King assassination? Only the continued sway of race can explain the continuation of such moral degeneracy. Today is a good day to do something about this heinous reality, and I suggest this. If nothing else, King commands that we see to it that no child starves in America, yet up to 33 percent do not get enough to eat. Allowing childhood poverty to fester is not just morally reprehensible, it is economic suicide. Only a nation that empowers all of its human resources to reach their highest productive use can ever be the most productive and prosperous nation. King understood this.

Indeed, this quote best summarizes King's vision of social justice, from his speech "Social Justice" delivered at Western Michigan University on December 18, 1963:

"All I'm saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms. "No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of a Continent, a part of the main." He goes on toward the end to say "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." It seems to me that this is the first challenge. This emerging new age."

Economically, that which diminishes any human, diminishes the economic prospects of all humans because contracted opportunity for one contracts the demand for what all others offer for sale in terms of goods or services. Poverty anywhere means fewer law students for me to teach, for example. Poverty lessens the demand for innovation. Poverty destroys our ability to produce new ideas. Poverty incites violence and crime. The more poverty, therefore, in any society, the less prosperous that society will be. On this point, King echos Adam Smith who stated in 1776: "No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable."

Poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.

Professor Steven A. Ramirez
Loyola University Chicago
School of Law

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