The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. left many legacies: as a crusader for civil rights, voting rights, religious harmony, peace and economic justice.
As America honors the eighty-fifth anniversary of King’s birth, it is right to remember all of those legacies.
But at a moment when the national debate has finally begun to refocus on the issue of income inequality that so motivated Dr. King, it is his commitment to economic justice that merits particular attention.
Fifty years ago, when Dr. King marched on Washington for jobs and freedom, the federal minimum wage was $1.25 an hour. In today’s dollars, that guaranteed base wage would be $9.54 an hour.
But the federal minimum wage today is just $7.25 an hour.
Low-wage workers are more than $2 behind where they were when Dr. King declared: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minn., well noted last year at a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington that “workers are falling behind.”
“Income inequality threatens our democracy as Jim Crow segregation did in 1963,” explained Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Families are working harder than ever and are still struggling to put food on the table. A full day’s work doesn’t mean a full day’s pay.”
King recognized that wage issues were civil rights issues. “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” he told a rally of AFSCME sanitation workers in Memphis on March 18, 1968, barely two weeks before his death. “For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
And what is the worker who prepares and serves that hamburger being paid?
That’s a question that has been asked frequently over the past year, as thousands of fast-food workers and their supporters have struck, marched and rallied to demand better pay, benefits and workplace protections.
Most Americans are aware that, especially in a weak economy, fast-food restaurant jobs are no longer “entry-level” positions. In chain restaurants across the country, most workers are adults. And substantial numbers of them are trying to support families.