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Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King: The Fight for Economic Equality

On Monday, January 18, we as a nation stop and remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his impact and influence on the Civil Rights Movement and his fight to end economic inequality and poverty.

While Dr. King is most widely known for his “I Have a Dream” speech and nonviolent protest philosophy, towards the end of his life he focused his energy on the fight for economic justice and empowerment. Days before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King organized a march on Washington called the Poor People’s Campaign, which centered around the fundamental ideal that all people should have a chance to live a good life: a job with a living wage, employment training, affordable housing, education and access to health care. The Poor People’s Campaign was a multiracial effort—including African Americans, white Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans—aimed at alleviating poverty regardless of race.

“God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.” – Dr. King, “Strength to Love”, 1963

Today, nearly 40 million Americans remain poor, and a majority of students in many schools do not have enough to eat. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, two-thirds of all St. Paul Public School students qualified for free or reduced meals and that number has continued to grow. Many working people of all incomes and occupations live paycheck to paycheck and are aware that their jobs, their homes, their health care, their education and their families remain vulnerable.

While economic inequality has been building for decades in the U.S., the pandemic has only widened the divide. Since mid-March, tens of millions of Americans across the country have lost their jobs as a result of the economic fallout from the pandemic. No group has been spared, but as the economy starts to recover, some groups are faring significantly worse than others.

The Work for Economic Equality Continues

In light of ongoing economic disparities, many organizations and individuals work to honor Dr. King’s legacy by fighting for economic equality. YWCA St. Paul knows that economic stability and income equality are essential to overall community health.

Our Employment & Economic Development programs empower people to build professional skills and overcome barriers to employment by providing training for jobs and credentials, culturally specific workshops and ongoing case management and support. YW also empowers young people to build bright futures through youth employment programming, which allows young people to get 1:1 mentorship, skills development and hands-on job experience. Our Housing & Supportive Services address issues or barriers that led to homelessness, helping participants achieve secure, independent housing. The impact isn’t limited to economic justice, but like Dr. King, we recognize that these are all cornerstones in the fight for equity.

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.” – Dr. King, Nobel Peace Prize address, 1964

It is important to honor the legacy of Dr. King today and every day, so his words and actions live on. How we remember him matters. It helps us understand that so much work still needs to be done to achieve economic equality – and reminds us of the part we all play in making the world a better place.