Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., looked to our city, Newark, New Jersey, and other urban communities and explained that the country consisted of “two Americas,” divided by race.
Shortly before his assassination in Memphis, King visited the City of Newark. He spoke at South Side High School, now known as Malcolm X Shabazz High School, and he visited the home of Amiri Baraka. King began to confront the idea that some of the same folks that were willing to sit down with him at lunch counters in Montgomery were not willing to stand with him against poverty in Newark. He articulated that while many willingly sacrificed their lives to oppose the naked violence of Jim Crow in the South, they could not find similar courage to lend a hand in lifting the heavy weight of unemployment and structural inequality in northern cities.
King delivered a thoughtful and stirring speech at Stanford University where he outlined two Americas, separate and unequal. Soon after the Kerner Commission echoed these sentiments in its report on “The Crisis in America’s Cities.”
In that speech, King explained that, in one America, “millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity,” with the ability to realize their full potential. But in the “other America,” people “find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Fifty years later, the two Americas persist in cities across this country, including here in our mighty City of Newark. Indeed, King’s reference to an “ocean of material prosperity” describes the employment opportunities available now in Newark.
A major transportation hub in the United States, Newark has one of the busiest airports and seaports in the country. We are home to major Fortune 500 businesses, hundreds of manufacturers, a large network of leading hospitals, and world-class research universities and cultural institutions. As a testament to Newark’s economy, the majority of the people employed here earn more than $40,000 each year.
But this prosperity has not been shared by the majority of Newark residents. Newark, like most American cities of its kind, has suffered from an unfinished fight for greater democracy, a more perfect union—or as Dr. King would say, Newark still has a check marked “insufficient funds.” As a result, the poverty rate for Black residents of Newark is a striking 33 percent, more than double the national average for all races.
This is part of a broader, troubling picture: Newark residents, incredibly, hold only 18 percent of all jobs in the city.
The primary driver of poverty is unemployment. Among those living in poverty in Newark, 96 percent of them did not have a full-time job in the past year, and 69 percent did not receive any income from work.