The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and Reparations Today

Updated: Jan 10

“Who are we? We are the descendants of slaves. We are the offspring of noble men and women who were kidnaped from their native land and chained in ships like beasts. We are the heirs of a great and exploited continent known as Africa. We are the heirs of a past of rope, fire and murder. I for one am not ashamed of this past. My shame is for those who became so inhuman that they could inflict this torture upon us."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community’


On the third Monday of every January, people all over the country reflect on the work and life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many organizations and groups march in celebration of the great Civil Rights Leader and observe his birthday as a National Day of Service by volunteering in their communities. In this era of continued police brutality and deaths, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, counter Proud Boys protests, record unemployment and mass evictions, Americans yet again are posed with the question: What does the work of Dr. King mean to me and my life today? Furthermore, would he be satisfied with the economic state and politics of Black America in the year 2021?


Using the common indicators of growth and change for Blacks, e.g., homeownership and unemployment, the data today reflects little to no progress since the late 1960 and early 1970s. In terms of homeownership, after the Fair Housing Act was signed in 1968 there was a rate of 41.1% of Blacks owning homes. But In 2018, the number lingered at 41.2%. Some experts believe that “reverse redlining” along with unenforced anti-discrimination policies stifled or flatlined black homeownership numbers more than 50 plus years later. As for Black unemployment in 1968, it was at a rate of 6.7%. In 2017, it rose to 7.5% (https://www.epi.org/publication/50-years-after-the-kerner-commission/).


These data points not only point to systematic racism, but also to the inaction of our political leadership and our own lack of more critical involvement in the political process. We have failed to hold our representatives accountable and have taken a back seat in shaping policy for our collective uplift. While an entire generation of Black Boomers saw economic growth and opportunities unlike those of their parents and grandparents, we failed to keep pushing policy for subsequent generations, who now have little to no generational wealth or access to well-paying jobs. With hundreds of years of discrimination and racism and decades of failed, underfunded, and underenforced policies, is there anything that will dig Black America out of this hole? The American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) believe that a comprehensive reparations program - including cash payments, set-asides, and specifically targeted, transformative policies - is the only answer.


If King were here today, would he be a proponent for reparations? The answer is a resounding yes! Before Dr. King was killed, he spoke up about reparations and America’s history of cultivating wealth for white Americans through policies and programs which facilitated land and property procurements and economic growth. These specific programs worked to create generational wealth for white America, which in turn allows them to “ride out” and recover from recessions, market crashes and other economic downturns. In a 1968 speech, Dr. King said “...not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in Federal subsidies...and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we’re faced with and this is a reality. Now when we come to Washington, in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check!” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLV5y4utPKI)


It can be argued that in his speeches and writings, Dr. King strictly dedicated himself to tackling the issue of poverty. He specifically highlighted the unique plight of Blacks and low-income whites. However, he understood that Blacks were at a severe economic disadvantage due to the effects of hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow. Moreover, because the traditional American psyche was designed with a perverse obsession with race rather than class, it would be a hard-fought battle to get poor whites to understand the plight of Blacks and that low-income whites are just as affected by class-based policies as Blacks. In MLK’s book ‘Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community’, the issue of willful ignorance is addressed, saying “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”


The Martin Luther King Jr holiday was signed into law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. It, however, was not fully observed by all 50 states until the year 2000. Was it only racism that kept America from fully committing to the ideals of King? Why has it taken decades for King’s legacy to permeate into the American ethos? It is worth noting that especially in the era of Obama, Roger Ailes, and Fox News, race became an explicit tool used to polarize the country in an effort to firmly entrench Democratic and Republican voting blocs. Perhaps due to fear of losing the white working and middle class voting bloc, many politicians have chosen to ignore race and believe issues of class should be tackled first.

Some activists and Progressive politicians have taken up King’s mantle in the new “Poor People’s Campaign”, a revitalized movement based on his original call to action in 1968. They propose a strict moral and class-based agenda that unfortunately does not adequately address the specific challenges faced by American Descendants of Slavery. Proposals such as “Medicare For All” and “Cancel Student Debt” which in themselves would benefit people who happen to be Black, do fall short of speaking directly to Black Americans who experience a unique and historically relevant form of systemic racism within the healthcare industry, and do not address the fact that many ADOS don't have money or access to loans to further education advancement in the first place. The American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) have consistently pushed politicians like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden to specify a targeted Black agenda to address the effects of racial issues. However, upon review of their African American agendas, they have a singular focus on prison and criminal reform, include the issues of other marginalized groups like immigration, and remain largely symbolic rather than transformative without a firm commitment to reparations. Again, it is worth noting that their focus on criminal justice has consistently been linked to broader economic strategies that benefit the rich who manipulate and capitalize off the underpaid labor of working-class Americans.


To this day, scholars, politicians, and celebrities alike evoke the spirit, wisdom, and immortal legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet, if we hold up a lens to the current economic and spiritual condition of descendants of slavery in America, and if we truly seek to understand a way forward using the philosophy espoused by Dr. King, it is astonishing to witness how the uncomfortable question of race has been pushed to the side. In order to make his message more palatable to the world, especially the message shift to economic inclusion before his death, scholars have often modified and taken out of context King’s words. It has been articulated with the universal, 'We are the World' naivete. If Dr. King were alive today, while he would be overjoyed to know that his legacy was being used to better humanity, it is hard to believe that he would be satisfied with the current state of Black America as a whole. He lived, fought and died to improve the lives of American descendants of slavery. His work on this earth was entirely dedicated to that very end. Based on the actual data, since we have little indication that the economic condition of ADOS lives have improved very much since 1968, we know that Dr. King would be challenging all Americans - ADOS and allies alike - to keep their eyes on the prize. And that prize is economic inclusion, the elimination of the lineage wealth gap and collective uplift for the American Descendants of Slavery who built this country.


ADOS DMV Region has a website at adosdmv.com for anyone interested in advocating for American Descendants of Slavery in Washington, D.C, Maryland and Virginia. You can also contact us to find your local chapter across the country in order to grow politically and find out about state and Federal reparations programs and legislation. Join us as we push the needle for true change for Black America. Visit the National Coalition of Churches for Reparations NCCFR.org or email contact@nccfr.org or ADOSPastors@gmail.com for more information.

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