In 1966, Dr. King moved into a $90-a-month, four-room apartment in a tenement at 1550 S. Hamlin Avenue in Chicago. He sought to challenge the slumlords who were exploiting the poor, the city that was ignoring them, the national government that had abandoned them. Today that lot is empty. The tenement is gone but nothing has been put in its place. King's last mission has yet to be realized.
Dr. King was driven, even after the triumph over legal apartheid, even after he received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Civil Rights Movement had won the guarantee of basic citizenship. Segregation was no longer legal; Blacks had the right to vote, to go to public schools, to ride on the bus or stay in the hotel. But King would quote Anatole France who once said, "The law in its majestic equality forbids all men to sleep under benches – the rich as well as the poor." Dr. King marched on Washington to redeem a check that had bounced, marked "insufficient funds."
King's last campaigns were about basic economic justice. He believed that in this rich country, every person should have the right to a job, to a good education, to affordable health care, to the training needed to move on up. A vibrant economy was necessary but not sufficient. Government had to step in, put rules around the marketplace, empower workers to gain a living wage, and if needed, become the employer of last resort.
Today, the U.S. economy is in trouble. Foreclosures, bankruptcies, unemployment, poverty indices are up. Jobs are going out; drugs and guns coming in. For Blacks and Latinos — still the last to be hired and the first to be fired — the situation grows dire. The New York Times reports that the "swift deterioration in the job market" hit "teenagers, Blacks and Hispanics" the hardest, with unemployment increasing at "triple the increase for whites. More than one-third of all African Americans between 16 and 19 are now unemployed. The number of children without health insurance is growing. People of color have been the most likely to be victimized in the mortgage scams.
Structurally, the economic ruins are everywhere apparent. Inequality has reached obscene levels. The reckless speculation of Wall Street bankers cost billions in losses and millions of their homes but executives in the top five firms pocketed a record $39 billion in year-end bonuses.
Across the country, basic investment in areas vital to our economy – from bridges, to mass transit, to the electric grid, to broadband, to affordable college – has been starved, even as the Bush administration has lavished hundreds of billions of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and nearly a trillion dollars on the catastrophic "war of choice" in Iraq.
Now the president and the Congress are negotiating about a short term "stimulus" package to kick-start a slowing economy. The current consensus is for temporary, small bore tax cuts – essentially Walmart gift certificates. There is no relationship between stimulus and real needs: Nothing for those about to lose their homes; nothing for the collapsing infrastructure. No help for the cities as tax bases erode. No help for states about to face cuts in Medicaid and schools.
Raising the crisis facing the poor and our urban areas isn't politic. But Dr. King understood that he had a different charge:
"Cowardice, asks the question - is it safe? Expediency asks the question - is it politic? Vanity asks the question - is it popular? But conscience asks the question - is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right."
Let us celebrate Dr. King's dream by adopting once more his final mission.
Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.