Every politician, every news anchor and every newspaper eulogized Coretta Scott King after her Jan. 30 death, praising her commitment to civil rights. But how much attention did we pay to Mrs. King's words and actions when she was alive?
Must it only be upon the passing of our iconic leaders that we pause to grasp the depths of racial inequality around us, a real and present danger that we ignore at our own peril?
Mrs. King's commitment was not just to a narrow definition of civil rights as legal freedom from discrimination. She spoke up for economic justice and peace, both before she met her late husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and after his death.
In June 1968, she called upon American women to fight three evils: racism, poverty and war. In 1974, she formed the Full Employment Action Council, a broad coalition that advocated full employment and equal opportunity. She urged President George W. Bush to ask American corporations to put their resources behind the effort to help the poor. She recognized the economic consequences of militarism and considered money spent on weapons, rather than economic development, money wasted.
How sad that she did not live to see her vision become reality! At the time of her passing, the African American unemployment rate was more than double that of Whites; the jobless recovery has been more jobless for some races than others. The massive layoffs in the auto industry and the overall decline in manufacturing have affected Black workers especially hard. Black families who had painstakingly risen from poverty through education and hard work are falling backwards, losing health coverage and losing homes to foreclosure.
Federal programs that have boosted prior generations into the middle class, such as Pell grants and housing subsidies, are being cut to pay for war and for tax cuts for the rich. And despite Bush's lip service to narrowing the divide after Hurricane Katrina, he once again proposed cuts to the ladder of opportunity in his recent budget proposal.
How sad that the last five years of Coretta Scott King's life were years of backsliding on the progress she worked for all her life. While median income has fallen since 2000 for every racial group, it has fallen fastest for African Americans. While the typical White family gained 6 percent in net worth from 2001 to 2004, rising to $136,000, the typical Black family gained not at all, remaining at a dismal $20,000, according to the Federal Reserve. Though more and more jobs are located in the suburbs, beyond the reach of public transportation, one in four Black families own no car, compared with one in 14 White families. This disparity was tragically obvious during Hurricane Katrina, as those left behind were overwhelmingly Black and poor.
Mrs. King's death comes right after Dr. King's national holiday, one which she fought so hard to achieve and right before Black History Month. This brief reflective time of the country's calendar sparks a variety of valuable national forums about civil rights. But too often our focus is on a few great historical figures, which obscures the need for all of us to call on our country to live up to its ideals.
All too often we wait blindly for the one or two golden leaders to lead us from the storm. We spend too much time lamenting the loss of charismatic leaders of the past. But as a Hopi teaching reminds us, "We are the ones we have been waiting for." Our everyday interactions and observations are enough of a rudimentary tool kit to begin the work of spotlighting racial injustice.
Everyday people made possible the victories of the civil rights movement, and everyday people can take the lead today. We can best honor the memory of Coretta Scott King, Dr. King and Rosa Parks by committing ourselves to challenge and close the racial wealth divide.
Anisha Desai is a writer for the Web site, United for a Fair Economy. This editorial appeared on the Web site in February 2006.