Though many focus on integration as MLK’s main focus, his goal wasn’t simply getting Black people to share spaces with just because, rather, his fight was for equal access. To that point, economic equity via MLK’s war on poverty was foundational.
Literally, MLK’s final acts were aimed at improving our economic realities. King went to Memphis to support the bargaining rights of garbage workers, which was linked to his larger, national effort — the Poor People’s Campaign planned for the national mall in Washington, D.C. in 1968.
Moreover, in his last speech given the night before he was assassinated, MLK called for Black people to withhold their dollars from companies that refused to hire Blacks, and instead support Black businesses and put their money in Black banks.
And King expressed what he often described as the “fierce urgency of now” when he said, “If something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”
And for King, all actions, marches and protests had to lead to economic actions, as reflected in his directive, “Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal.”
Thus, King’s strategy for improving the economic realities of those Memphis sanitation workers was economic in nature: “Up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain,” he said regarding Blacks withdrawing their dollars from white businesses. But King went a step further.
“But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen Black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a ‘bank-in’ movement in Memphis… Put your money there. You have six or seven Black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an ‘insurance-in.’
So, why do so few MLK events and celebrations totally ignore MLK’s focus on Blackfolks’ economic realities? We, at the Defender have no answer to that question. But what we do have are insights from Houston leaders regarding the importance of Black economics to MLK and what they are doing to honor that focus.
MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER
There are a number of things. Number one, it’s important for people to have affordable housing. And the goal by the end of this year is to build 3,000 senior family homes starting from January of 2016, going to my last year as mayor. That’s one thing. Number two is improving the conditions of neighborhoods, communities that have been underserved and under-resourced for decades. We are placing a great deal of emphasis and investments into these particular neighborhoods—10 communities that we’ve identified. Third, in terms of creating or putting dollars back into the community, I joined with some other Black entrepreneurs and business owners to form the Houston Social Justice Economic Equity Fund, working with $20 million that we received from Wells Fargo. We have given out grants, anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 to 219 businesses in the city of Houston. And then fourth, when it comes to (MLK’s idea of a) guaranteed income, a part of that in working with others, we are providing 100 families in the city of Houston a guaranteed income of $500 a month for 12 months. Hopefully, that would help to pay for some groceries or some gas. At least they know it’s coming every single month for 12 months. That’s a guaranteed income program. So, those are just a few of the things that we are doing in the City of Houston to put people in better financial and economic footing.
STATE REP. RON REYNOLDS
So, often we focus on the civil rights, but not the silver rights. Dr. King, if you remember before he was assassinated, he was marching for jobs and justice. He was marching for the sanitation workers in Memphis so that they have adequate pay. He was advocating for economic opportunities, and that is one of the things we need to bring particular attention to, especially in the Black community where we spend most of our dollars outside of our community. And we need to build from bottom up. What do I mean by that? We need to support Black-owned businesses, Black establishments. We need to be supporting the Black papers like the Defender. We need to be supporting Black barbershops and beauty supply shops. We need to be patronizing Black-owned businesses. That is what Dr. King would want. He would want us to support our own before we start complaining about what’s wrong with our communities.
What are we doing? How are we making a difference? How are we supporting through our own dollars with a Black lawyer, Black professionals, Black contractors, Black architects and engineers and lawyers and whoever? Whatever the goods and services are, are we making a deliberative effort to seek those services from Black-owned businesses? There are so many that are competent, capable and qualified that can’t stay in business because we refuse to support them. So, in order to keep Dr. King’s dream alive, we need to do more than just talk about civil rights. We need to talk about silver rights and how we can support with economic development and economic support for Black businesses. That is the way we sustain our communities and we build more job creation. Finally, let me just say this, Texas has more African Americans than any other state. We should have more strong Black business development because of that. We should have more millionaires and even billionaires, and we need to start supporting each other, and that would be a great way to fulfill Dr. King’s dream.
TERESA BREWER, BLACK HERITAGE SOCIETY PRESIDENT
Honoring Dr. King’s fight for economic equity, that’s what the parade is all about. And not just the parade, but also, we have a festival, we have a concert, and we encourage small businesses, minority businesses to come out and be vendors at these events. What better way to impact the community, not just with fun, but also with economic opportunities. So please, y’all, come out to the Original MLK Jr. Parade and Festival, Jan. 16, as well as the Gospel concert on Jan. 15. Go to our website, www.blackheritagesociety.net.