The Other America: MLK on Inequality and Race

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day. In honor of his lifelong commitment to racial justice, I read through his “Other America” speech. He gave this in 1967, at Stanford University, as he shifted his focus from Negro rights to his Poor People’s Campaign demanding better pay and affordable housing.

We can call it his “Other Speech”, night and day though with a shared terrain from his “I have a dream” speech.

In this one, instead of sharing his hopeful vision of racial harmony, he spells out a dark reality of ongoing economic injustice, diagnosing the same socio-medical ills I grapple with today.

He speaks in poetry. I join millions of others in being moved by his insight and clarity of expression.

Below are excerpts from his speech that jumped out at me, and some of my own comments at the end.


There Are Literally Two Americas

One America is beautiful…overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity.

This America is the habitat of millions of people

who have food and material necessities for their bodies

and culture and education for their minds

and freedom and human dignity for their spirits.

In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having

life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

in all of their dimensions.

And in this America, millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.

But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America.

This other America has a daily ugliness…that constantly transforms the ebullience of hope into the fatigue of despair.

In this America, millions of work starved men

walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist.

In this America, millions of people

find themselves living in rat infested, vermin filled slums.

In this America, people are poor by the millions…

perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

The struggle for Civil Rights and the struggle to make these two Americas one America

is much more difficult today that it was five or ten years ago…

We are struggling now for genuine equality

And it is much easier to integrate a lunch counter

than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job.

It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote

than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions.

It is much easier to integrate a public park

than it is to make genuine, quality integrated education a reality.

And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.


My comments:

Fifty years later we are still struggling for genuine equality, while facing worsening inequality.  The middle class is disappearing, the poor are poorer, the rich are richer, and I see the same forces Dr. King described at play in 1967 active on the South Side of Chicago today. Fifty years, and nothing has changed, except racism has gone underground and been reborn as a tolerance of the socio-economic status quo–an attitude that disproportionately traps historically poor brown and black communities in cycles of poverty.

“Time is neutral,” Dr. King said in this Other America speech, in response to those who said–give racial justice time to settle into society. “It can be used either constructively or destructively.”

How constructive have we been in promoting racial justice? How destructive?

What can we do differently?

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