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Martin Luther King Jr. Day: A Reflection

Posted in Human Resources (HR) Compliance

For several years now, I’ve been posting about Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the impact in the workplace.  (And as Ryan McKeen notes, it is properly called Martin Luther King Jr. Day).    Today I want to go a little deeper. 

Everyone knows about the "I Have a Dream" speech (and if you need a refresher, Jon Hyman has a good one here.

But that happened in 1963.  Dr. King still had several years of work ahead of him. 

Lost, a bit, in history is his efforts in this time period to move from basic civil rights, to the idea that — without economic and political power — the progress that was made would go no further.

In a speech delivered in August 1967 to the 11th Annual SCLC Conference, Dr. King indicated that his next goals were to ensure security for all Americans and fight poverty.

Now we must develop progress, or rather, a program—and I can’t stay on this long—that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. Now, early in the century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. And in the thinking of that day, the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber. We’ve come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold: We must create full employment, or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.

It would be too easy to pigeonhole Dr. King’s work to civil rights and say, well, we’ve gotten far enough.  In Dr. King’s view, ensuring that employers were employing African Americans and other minorities was still part of the work left to do.

Through my work with the American Bar Association, I had the opportunity to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis a few years back.   It’s a terrific little museum that puts the entire movement into better perspective and gives you a deeper understanding that King’s work was not simply about where you could sit on buses.  It was so much more than that.

On this day, understanding King’s work is just one of the good ways to honor his memory.  If you’d like to understand more, you can read a speech or two here.  

(For more links, check out the special MLK-day edition of the Blawg Review as well. 

  • Charlie Krich

    A fantastic and timely posting. Thanks, Dan.
    “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63″ is a very lucid and readable account of some of the history and thinking behind MLK’s work. It picks up several of the themes you’ve identified here.
    “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963)

  • louise galvin

    Dan,
    thank you for this very thoughtful column and for forwarding the relatively unknown speech about economic viability for everyone in our country…it is just as much needed today as in the 1960′s, and those words of Dr. King are truly inspirational, I have shared your column with our entire staff. Thanks again for the eloquent reminder of this great man!
    Louise