Forty-nine years ago, on June 23, 1963, tens of thousands of people gathered here in Detroit, only weeks before hundreds of thousands went to Washington to march for jobs and freedom.
In the Detroit speech, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sowed the seeds of his more widely known speech at our nation’s capital. He described his famous vision of a day when the white sons of former slave owners and the black sons of those who had been enslaved would live together as brothers, judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters.
Yet we know King’s dream was not merely a dream about friendship, not some story about two unlikely friends communing across a great economic divide. His dream was about true equality—economic, political and social justice.
And he knew that a chief tool for freedom and progress for all people was collective action—whether in the voting booth, in the workplace organized as a labor union or in the shared spaces of this country as nonviolent civil disobedience. It could be at a lunch counter in Alabama or in a park near Wall Street.
In the decades since King was taken from us, our nation may have made enormous strides in the direction of racial justice, but the tragedy of our time is that economic inequality has increased dramatically over the past half-century. All but the richest Americans have suffered. Nearly 100 million Americans live in poverty, almost one-third of us.
Indeed, since 1997, American families have suffered the first mass decline since the Great Depression. But it’s not equal opportunity damage. Over the past 30 years, the median wealth for African-American households fell by two-thirds, and nearly half of black children live in poverty. The black unemployment rate last month was nearly 17%, almost twice the national average.
Yet, as in King’s era, we live in a time of tremendous opportunity for change. In 2011, millions of Americans saw and experienced the strength that comes from collective action as people came together in protest in such places as Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, New York City and here in Detroit.
Read the full op-ed in the Detroit Free Press here.
This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now blog on January 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Arlene Holt Baker’s experience as a union and grassroots organizer spans more than 30 years. On Sept. 21, 2007, she was approved unanimously as executive vice president by the AFL-CIO Executive Council, becoming the first African American to be elected to one of the federation’s three highest offices and the highest-ranking African American woman in the union movement. In this position, Holt Baker builds on her legacy of inspiring activism and reaching out to diverse communities to support the needs and aspirations of working people.