What Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy Means in 2021

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade against racial and economic inequality

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King Jr. said.

As our nation prepares to celebrate the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many will recognize his famous “I Have a Dream” speech as a call for equality, or more specifically, racial equality for all. Yet, this wasn’t his only dream. 

King delivered another message on the National Mall that day—an often forgotten message—which was an appeal to eradicate poverty and create equal opportunities. As much as he campaigned for civil rights and racial equality, he also saw American capitalism as a roadblock in this fight. 

In this speech, King spoke of the economic struggle of Black Americans and the racial wealth divide, and he didn’t mince words as he described Black Americans living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

King brought up issues of economic justice, poverty and unfair labor in other speeches, too. Black sanitation workers in Memphis organized a strike to demand improved safety standards and better wages in 1968. In his speech to these workers, King emphasized that, “All labor has dignity,” and he made a direct connection between racial injustice and economic injustice.

“For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” said King. 

This was one of King’s final engagements before his death in 1968. Two weeks after his assassination the city of Memphis agreed to the workers’ demands.

King’s Other Dream 

King’s vision of economic justice also involved a guaranteed (or universal) basic income for all. He spoke about this idea in his final book in 1967, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? 

In an economic system that often overlooked Black Americans and poor people, he envisioned a policy that would eradicate poverty by guaranteeing every poor family a middle-class income.

Guaranteed income wasn’t a type of welfare system, though, nor did it imply paying people not to work. Rather it encouraged the government to create more jobs (and new types of jobs) so everyone could earn a reasonable income. 

At Capital One, we recognize that disparities in housing, education and employment, among other key factors, create inequities in a person’s financial health and overall well-being. We launched the Capital One Impact Initiative to help close these gaps and support growth in underserved communities. The Impact Initiative is a part of our long-standing mission to change banking for good. 

Economic justice for the poor became King’s focus in his final years. He set out on a crusade to end poverty, first in the U.S. and then abroad. To jumpstart the end of poverty, he organized the Poor People’s Campaign, or the Poor People’s March on Washington. 

King died before this march took place.

Celebrating Racial and Economic Equality 

Sadly, recent events in America are a sobering reminder of the work that still needs to be done to reconcile and repair our country’s long and troubled history of racial inequality and injustice.

Last year, Capital One made an initial pledge of $10 million to organizations advancing the cause of social justice for Black communities. This pledge built upon our commitment of $50 million to support long-standing non-profit partners struggling to pursue their core missions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, including many organizations dedicated to meeting the most pressing needs of the Black community. As part of this, we made investments in national organizations dedicated to the fight for racial equity and justice, including building on our successful partnership with the National Urban League and My Brother’s Keeper, and establishing a new relationship with the Obama Foundation

And, through the Impact Initiative, we will continue to improve socioeconomic mobility. “Socioeconomic mobility is one of the most pervasive and long-standing issues in our society,” said Andy Navarrete, Capital One Executive Vice President and Head of External Affairs. “Our growth and success as a company provides us with an extraordinary platform to tackle the root causes of this challenge. We have the opportunity and the obligation to leverage our scale and resources, and to harness the ingenuity and empathy of our associates, to be an engine for progress.”

The initiative hopes to close gaps in equity and opportunity by advocating for an inclusive society, affordable housing, racial equity, small business support, workforce development, and financial well-being — all key components to “creating a world where everyone has an equal opportunity to prosper.” Capital One believes that socioeconomic mobility starts from a place of inclusion and belonging, an idea that King would likely agree with.

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it,” said King. 

What King’s Legacy Means Today

This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day marks the 26th anniversary of the day of service that celebrates King’s life and legacy. Observed as “a day on, not a day off,” MLK Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national Day of Service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities. 

It calls for people from all walks of life to work together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems. The MLK Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social issues, and moves us closer to Dr. King's vision of a "beloved community."

Participation in the MLK Day of Service has grown steadily over the past decade, with hundreds of thousands of Americans each year engaging in projects such as tutoring and mentoring children, painting schools and senior centers, delivering meals, building homes, and reflecting on Dr. King's life and teachings.  To learn more about the MLK Day of Service, visit AmeriCorps.

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