Now that we’ve had two events at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, it is important to remember a few things about Martin Luther King, Jr. beyond his “I Have a Dream” speech. The question is always asked: What happens after the marches are over?
Demonstrators left Washington, D.C. in 1963 determined to change the American landscape. Consequently, we had passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Those laws were passed, not because of a speech in the nation’s capital, but because of the hard work and dedication of people at the local, state, and national levels to bring about change.
While the “I Have a Dream” speech might have been King’s most popular, it was not his most substantive one. In 1963, King etched a picture of what America should look like in the future. However, a far more important effort was his “Mountaintop” speech, delivered in Memphis the night before he was assassinated. In that speech, King outlined a plan for economic empowerment and told us how to strengthen our institutions to accomplish that goal.
Instead of placing so much emphasis on what King said in 1963, we should look at what he was doing at the time of his death. He wasn’t trying to create a special commission or hold conferences on how to strengthen the middle class. He was organizing a Poor Peoples Campaign, a trek to Washington, D.C. to dramatize the urgent need to help the least among us. SCLC continued the Poor Peoples’s March after King’s death, erecting a tent city on the Mall. After six weeks, demonstrators were evicted.
Today, the poor are still suffering. Poverty is defined as a family of four being able to live off of $23,021 a year. Today, a record 46.2 million people, 15 percent of the U.S. population, are living in poverty.
One of the goals of the 1963 March on Washington was a minimum wage that could lift a family of four out of poverty. They demanded the minimum wage of $1.15 an hour be increased to $2 an hour. As a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) entitled, “The Unfinished March: An Overview,” noted, “The inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage today is about $2 less than it was at its peak value in 1968.” Worse than living on below-poverty wages is to have no job at all.
When he was assassinated, King was helping organize garbage workers in Memphis. He was not dreaming because he was not asleep. We honor him by continuing his work, not by merely continuing to recite his “I Have a Dream” speech.