A few days ago I met my friend Lola for lunch. She's the director of the L.A. Black Workers Center, a relatively new organization that advocates for black employment in the city because the level of employment is, and almost always has been, unacceptably low.
The BWC is housed at the Paul Robeson Center on Vermont Avenue near Florence, deep in what you'd call the hood. The center is small but has big ideas. It's not a drop-in center where folks get work counseling and fill out applications, though it can help facilitate that; nor is it a think tank that issues analyses of the routinely miserable statistics on black employment in L.A. and elsewhere, though it also draws on that for its work. It is something in between, an advocacy/activist organization that uses the miserable stats to energize real people and to re-energize the larger cause of black access to decent work that seems to have died with Martin Luther King in 1968.
The cause of employment was hardly as sexy as the cause for civil rights and the overturning of Jim Crow, which the Civil Rights Act did in 1964. It is this triumph that we are remembering next week with the approach of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, words that cemented that march and its moment of hope into history. And history delivered, in a fashion: A year later, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
But that was not the extent of the dream, of course. The problem with the "I Have a Dream" declaration was its instant iconic-ness -- the soaring ideal of American equality was excised neatly from King's more practical demands that attended the vast majority of his other speeches, like employment for blacks who had been shut out of good-paying jobs for generations (recall that march on Washington was specifically for jobs).
Today, the popular reading of King, a post-racial one that crosses political lines, is that he championed equality for all and not just for blacks. Not untrue, but a deliberate downplaying of the truth. King advocated for good jobs for all, of course -- and education and housing, and all the rest -- but his advocacy of black folks and their particular crisis was fundamental to that advocacy. He saw hundreds of years of systemic and legal racial oppression as a template for all oppression, and he warned that if we did not sufficiently redress the core wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow and its effects, the whole nation would suffer. We would lose our standing in the world, he warned, our own iconic status as a beacon of fairness and democracy because we would continue to rot from the inside.
He was more prophetic than he knew.
Many people would argue that America's current decline has more to do with shifting economic realities like globalization than it has to do with race. Indeed, we are loath to put race at the center of anything anymore, except when it feels convenient, titillating, or safely distanced from our daily lives. But globalization and outsourcing and the swoon of labor unions are merely extensions of the idea that workers are expendable and exploitable, people not to be respected but devalued; blacks have lived that reality longer than anybody else.
They're still living it, it's just that more and more folks are living it with them in an age in which the put-upon 99 percent is fast becoming the norm. King warned against this, too; by the end of his life he was voicing the very unpopular opinion that if America was going to stay strong, to keep its credentials of morality and humanity -- really, to earn them in the first place -- it needed nothing less than wealth redistribution. That socialistic view went over like a lead balloon in 1968. I don't need to tell you how it's going over now.
If he were alive today, what would King say about the landscape? He's already said it with words that are far more provocative, but far less heeded, than the user-friendly phrase "I have a dream." And then he might pay Lola and the Black Workers Center a visit and lend his support. The last support he did lend was to the black sanitation workers in Memphis who were asking for equal pay, but more than that, for equal regard. They were asking to be thought of as men, and as human beings actively participating in the American project rather than always being its collateral damage. That was, and is, unfinished business. It is time again to get to work.