What do the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Freddie Gray have to say about the United States today?
This April marks the one-year anniversary of the 2015 Baltimore rebellion and the 48th anniversary of the Baltimore rebellion of 1968. The 1968 rebellion started on April 6 and lasted for over a week, resulting in six deaths, 700 injuries, 5,800 arrested, and, in today’s dollars, nearly $80 million in damage. The Baltimore rebellion of 1968 reflected a nationwide phenomenon, the urban black poor taking to the streets in rage over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Forty-seven years later, Baltimore has become an industrial city in a post-industrial world, one of the many American cities that have erupted in protest over the death of young African-Americans in police custody.
But the 2015 insurrection, sparked by the arrest and killing of Freddie Gray, unfolded on a much smaller-scale than its 1968 counterpart, thanks in part to the defensive posture of the police department ordered by the mayor’s office. The “riot” only lasted the night, with about 250 people arrested and no deaths.
On April 4, 2016, the anniversary of the murder of Dr. King, I had a series of interviews for my Race and Wealth Podcast, talking with Baltimore residents who had either been in the middle of the rebellion or had been working with those who most regularly face the never ending violence of living in poverty. The death of Freddie Gray and the city’s reactions to that death, the interviews made clear, both sit deeply rooted in the history of Baltimore.
The standard narrative of our times holds that the civil rights movement brought racial equity to the United States. But those actually active in the civil rights movement knew that ending segregationist laws in the South would be just one step in the long journey needed to dismantle white supremacy.
“The first phase had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality,” Dr. King explained. “When Negroes looked for the second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared.”
In 2016, the United States continues to fail to implement the second phase of the civil rights movement.
Dr. King noted during the last few years of his life that “I have felt my dreams falter as I have traveled through the rat-infested slums of our big city ghettos and watched our jobless and hopeless poor sweltering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” [pullquote]The Freedom Budget called for a minimum wage worth about $14 an hour today, affordable medical care, and decent housing for all. [/pullquote]
In the late 1960s, Dr. King and other activists in the black freedom struggle came together to support an economic proposal that everyone from Stokely Carmichael, the prince of Black Power, to the NAACP agreed saw as necessary to bridge the nation’s racial inequality. This proposal, the Freedom Budget, emerged in 1967.
The Freedom Budget called for full employment at a time when African Americans had twice the unemployment rate of whites, a disparity that still persists to this day. The Freedom Budget called for a minimum wage that would equal about $14 an hour today, affordable medical care, and decent housing for all. The Freedom Budget also recognized the negative impact of a environmental pollution that was disproportionately affecting African Americans.
But all these economic demands of the civil rights movement would in large part never be implemented. Dr. King would be assassinated, and his Poor People’s Campaign ended in defeat barely six months after his death.
The murder of Dr. King symbolizes the defeat of the civil rights movement and the failure to attain the socio-economic demands of the second phase of the movement. The death of Freddie Gray and the protests that his plight helped to inspire should serve as a reminder that the nation, even nearing the end of the second term of the nation’s first black president, has failed to take the necessary and challenging economic steps to bridge the racial inequality gap.
The contemporary 99% and Black Lives Matter protests echo the long struggle for a nation that truly provides economic opportunity for all.
“There is nothing new about poverty,” as Dr. King noted a few days before his assassination. “What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
Sadly, the nation has lacked that will for the almost 50 years since Dr. King’s death. A year after the death of Freddie Gray, the nation still has lacks the will to comprehensively address racial economic inequality.
Dedrick Asante-Muhammed is the director of the Racial Wealth Divide Project at CFED. Prior to this work, he was the senior director of the Economic Department and executive director of the Financial Freedom Center at the NAACP. He has also worked on racial wealth issues for United for a Fair Economy and at the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality and the Common Good. Check out his Race and Wealth Podcast.