Text of remarks delivered to the "Common Ground" Conference held in Columbia, South Carolina on November 16, 2011.
Recently, I had the privilege to be in Washington, DC, and visit the new memorial to one of my heroes and one of the reasons I became a minister -- Martin Luther King. We sometimes forget that for Dr. King justice was not just a matter of civil rights but also a matter of economics. The dedication of his memorial was originally scheduled for August 28, the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. We forget that it was called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." The issue of economic justice was front-and-center. We also tend to forget that when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, he was supporting the demands of sanitation workers for livable wages, better working conditions, and the right to unionize. He took a detour to Memphis while planning a massive Poor People's Campaign to pressure Congress to pass an Economic Bill of Rights that would commit the federal government to full employment and a guaranteed annual income for every American.
Martin Luther King understood that political equality without economic security is meaningless. Without a job or an income, no person can meaningfully pursue life, liberty, or happiness. What difference does it make for people to have the right to eat at an integrated restaurant if they cannot afford a meal, or have the right to live in an integrated neighborhood if they cannot afford a house, or have the right to be treated at an integrated hospital if they do not have medical insurance? Dr. King recognized that our great nation has the resources to guarantee economic justice. What was lacking then -- and is lacking still -- is the will to do so. Said King, "If our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth."
If Dr. King were alive today, I think he would be astonished at how far we have come in racial equality, but I believe he would be appalled to see how far our nation has retreated in economic equality.
In 1968, the year of King’s death, the CEOs of the largest American companies earned an average of 40 times as much as the average worker; today, they make over 500 times as much. In 1968, the richest 1% brought home 8% of the income earned in this country; today, they rake in a quarter of the total income. Today four hundred Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined. Let me repeat that: Four hundred individuals have as much wealth as 150 million of their fellow citizens. That is obscene. Today, the United States has the widest gap between the have's and the have-not's of any industrialized nation.
From the end of World War II to the end of the Vietnam War, the average income for the average American family doubled. Since 1980, however, the wages of average Americans have stagnated, not because the nation's gross national product has stagnated (it has not) but because four-fifths of the nation's increased wealth has gone to the wealthiest one percent. Before 1980, we were growing together. Since 1980, we have been growing apart.
How did this happen? It wasn't an accident. It wasn't because of the invisible hand of the free market. It's because of the very visible hands of those with means to grasp more of the nation's economic pie for themselves and leave crumbs for everyone else. Conservatives say they abhor the "redistribution of wealth," yet over the last 30 years, they have orchestrated the greatest redistribution of wealth this country has ever experienced.
Economic power buys political power. Those with economic power buy politicians to do their bidding in the White House, in the Congress, and in the Statehouse so that they get bailouts when their greed causes them to overreach, get extensions to pay their debts, get exemptions from certain laws when they don't want to play by the rules, and get tax cuts for themselves and service cuts for everyone else.
Economic power also buys marketing power. Virtually all media in this country are owned by six massive corporations. When you control the media, you control the message. Those with economic power and their tea party minions have sold us their version of the American dream, and it goes like this: "The government has a deficit, and it has nothing to do with tax cuts for the rich and waging two wars for ten years. It's because we're spending too much on health, education, safety, infrastructure, environmental protection, and pensions. Therefore, the way to erase that deficit is not by raising revenue among those who can and should pay their fair share, plugging tax loopholes, ending war, and putting people to work. No, it's to cut spending on our most vulnerable citizens and shred the social safety net and let unfettered capitalism work its magic. Get government out of the way, they say, and let people be free to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even if they don’t have boots. So keep voting for politicians who favor the rich because one day you, too, might be a millionaire."
Here in the South, that version of the American dream has been sold to blue collar, working class whites with a racial twist. It began with slavery, when aristocratic plantation owners convinced poor dirt farmers that people with darker skin were inferior to them and that therefore it was permissible to buy and sell them on the auction block like livestock. Then the plantation owners convinced the dirt farmers to fight a war to preserve a privileged way of life that did not include them. When that war was lost, the dirt farmers were told that it had been a noble lost cause and that they could preserve their dignity by creating a segregated society that denigrated the dignity of former slaves.
When the plantation owners became the mill owners and the dirt farmers became the mill workers, they were told they could not form unions because black workers could not earn wages and benefits equal to white workers. And when it came time to win elections, the elite power brokers created a “Southern strategy” of convincing blue collar, working class whites to vote against their own economic interests in order to maintain their supposed racial superiority. They were told, “You may not receive an adequate education or livable wages; you may not have health insurance or a pension; you may work your fingers to the bone and never get ahead in this life; your children may not be promised a better future than yours; but at least you’re not black.” People who have nothing will cling to something if it gives them a sense of pride, even a false racial pride.
Racism is not an assault on people of color only; it holds white people down, too, especially blue collar, working class white people. If you’ve got your foot on somebody else, they’re not going anywhere and you’re not going anywhere. When you suppress the wages of African Americans, you suppress the wages of all workers, which is one reason wages in the South have always lagged behind the rest of the nation. When you create a Corridor of Shame of neglected schools to deprive African American children a quality education, you shortchange the future of all children in rural public schools. When you cut Medicaid and Food Stamps because you regard African Americans who receive public assistance as "dependent stray animals," you deprive all vulnerable people who are struggling to keep their head above water a life preserver. When you disenfranchise African American voters by requiring a photo id, you deny the vote to eligible voters of all colors.
Race has always been used as a wedge between working class whites and African Americans in South Carolina and throughout the South. And across our nation, the elite power brokers use the wedge issues of God, gays, and guns to convince working people to vote against their own class and their own self-interest.
It doesn't matter whether your ancestors came to this country on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, through Ellis Island or across the Rio Grande. We're all in the same boat now, and for working families, that boat is being sunk through an act of class warfare. I know we're not supposed to talk about class in America. It's ok to talk about race, gender, and sexual orientation, but we can't talk about class. We're supposed to pretend that everyone belongs to the middle class. But the fact is that class division in American is real, and each class has its own interests which come into conflict with the interests of the other class.
Let us be clear: it is in the interest of the uber-rich to slash the top income tax rate, capital gains taxes, and inheritance taxes so as to shift the tax burden to working people and to create a deficit that forces us to dismantle our social contract. It is in their interest to support so-called "tort reform" to limit lawsuits against corporations. It is in their interest to privatize public services. It is in their interest to eviscerate unions. It is in their interest to keep unemployment high so as to keep wages low. Make no mistake, we are engaged in a class war, and you and I are losing.
Working people can no longer afford to be divided along the color line or the party line or the religion line. Neither can we afford to be misled by tea parties and their millionaire sponsors, who would try to convince us that the near collapse of Wall Street and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression were due to too much government intervention, when in fact we know that they were due to the lack of government regulation of corporate greed and recklessness. The threat to our democracy is not socialism or communism. It's not abortion or gay marriage. It's not even Sharia law or the teaching of evolution. The threat to our democracy is oligarchy, the rule of the rich. We are ceasing to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people and are becoming a government of Goldman Sachs, by Exxon-Mobile, and for Citibank. As Justice Brandeis once put it, "We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both."
Back in 1968, Martin Luther King and the other warriors of the Civil Rights Movement could not have imagined an African American senator, standing on Capitol steps laid by African slaves, taking the oath of office as the President of the United States. The wall of prejudice, fear, and custom must have seemed insurmountable. Yet they persevered to press against that wall until it came tumbling down. They persevered in faith. They could not see the outcome of their efforts, and they could not know the conclusion of their struggle. They sacrificed their time and reputations, their families and friendships, their careers and livelihoods, and their very lives in the faith that if they stood up for what is right and spoke up for what is true, some good would follow some day for somebody.
Many of us in this room have grown disillusioned because the leaders we elected have not led, the promises they made have not been kept, and the ideals we hold dear have not been realized. And we have become disheartened because the forces of retreat and retrenchment have dug in their heels with renewed determination. But let us remember that progress has always been an uphill battle. "Power concedes nothing without a demand," counseled Frederick Douglass. "It never did and it never will."
You and I must not falter or fail. Our precious democracy is at stake, and democracy is not a spectator sport. If not you, then who? If not now, then when? The time is always right to do what is right. It's time, brothers and sisters, to speak truth to power, and it's time to exercise power. It's time to occupy Wall Street and Main Street and the voting booth. Bill Moyers had it right when he said that "the answer to organized money is organized people." We may not have the money of the one percent, but we have the numbers of the ninety-nine percent. So get mad, get organized, and get busy. We are in the fight of our lives for our lives.