Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an American national holiday in which we celebrate a man who fought and died for the cause of equality.
It’s a chilling last speech, in that King seems to be foretelling his assassination – which took place the next day. That was April 1968. It’s now 2014 and we’ve still not made it to King’s fabled “mountain top” or “promised land” where everyone is treated the same and everyone has equal opportunity to succeed. That’s not true in the U.S., it’s not true globally and it’s arguably a dream even less likely to come true if current trends persist.
That’s because, in the U.S. and worldwide, inequality is on the rise and has been for quite a while.
The world has certainly made progress on some fronts, at least in terms of passing more laws prohibiting racial (or other forms of) discrimination and, culturally, making the kind of routine and overt racism we used to witness regularly appear pathological today. That’s not universally true, of course, as ethnic clashes continue to erupt and certain categories of people (take gay people, for example) continue to face despicable and sometimes deadly persecution and inequities.
It’s important to note on this day that King wasn’t just talking about racial or categorical discrimination. In 1968, he and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had also organized the Poor People’s Campaign with a march on Washington, D.C., to protest against economic inequality.
That was a lot more radical than pushing for racial equality – and was perhaps the main reason King was on the FBI’s watch list at the time.
Today, income and wealth inequality in the United States is at a level not seen since before the Great Depression. Economic inequality is also on the rise worldwide. Later this week, in Davos, Switzerland, the annual meeting of the global elite will gather at the World Economic Forum to likely express, amid the talk about trade and banking, concern for the world’s poor.
It’s easy to poke fun at Davos with all its puffball-jacketed glitterati, conspicuous consumption and the by-invitation-only forums where speakers say compassionate things about the kind of people not allowed into this gathering of the rich and powerful. Some will say it’s better than nothing, than the previous attitude of the rich and powerful that this was not their problem.
Many of the world’s rich and powerful today do speak regularly of the grotesque level of existing inequity (a world where children still die for lack of food or clean water) and rising global inequality. It is on the agenda at Davos.
Yet despite a decade or so of similar rhetoric from the elite, despite isolated signs of progress against certain aspects of poverty, especially some key diseases of poverty, inequality is still rising.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a great orator, a master at achieving rhetorical power. But he also recognized the need for more than words – for meaningful action. That’s what made him great, and also dangerous.