Where are the great leaders today?
Fifty years ago, on Aug. 28, the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of more than 200,000 demonstrators — the largest protest on Capitol Hill to date — at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Racial, political and social injustice for African-Americans had come to a boiling point after consistent discriminatory practices led to high rates of black unemployment, work that offered most African-Americans only minimal wages and poor job mobility, systematic disenfranchisement and racial segregation in Southern states. King was fundamental to the Kennedy administration’s initiation of a strong federal civil rights bill in Congress.
There is, however, a common misconception, that King’s focus was only on racial equality, when, in fact, his life’s purpose was about economic equality as well. Five years after delivering the life-changing speech, he had planned another march at Washington, D.C., with his Poor People’s Campaign, which addressed all people of all races. He was going to propose the “Economic Bill of Rights,” which would ask that the federal government prioritize helping the poor with an antipoverty package that included housing and a guaranteed annual income for all Americans. To the dismay of much of the civil rights movement, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Fellow demonstrators did move forward with protest in May 1968 but the campaign’s effectiveness was hurt by various factors, including Robert Kennedy’s assassination and a crushing number of protesters — more than 700,000.
As we approach Labor Day, as we remember the work and effort of Dr. King, we can’t help but wonder if he had been able to lead that campaign effectively, whether we would see the same income disparity that we see today, whether the 99 percent would be a regularly used term, whether private-sector unions would be obsolete as they have nearly become today.
While we have seen a number of Americans fight against perceived social and economic injustice, including the Occupy Movement; Edward Snowden’s release of top-secret National Security Administration documents, revealing surprising U.S. surveillance on its citizens; and Bradley/Chelsea Manning, a U.S. army soldier, who leaked hundreds of thousands of war documents that revealed highly classified information and who has been convicted on several charges, including espionage; neither man have been revered as a national hero as King was and continues to be. So where are our King-caliber leaders of today?
It’s unfortunate to think that there is something in this country preoccupying the great minds and ambitious leaders who might otherwise generate the kind of protests and demonstrations needed for real change. When more people know about Miley Cyrus “twerking” at the MTV awards than the deaths of nearly 1,000 people via chemical weapons in Syria, we have a serious problem. Every wrong King worked so hard to right for African-Americans we see continuing in our nation known globally for its overwhelming prosperity and its dramatic income disparity. We hope that for future generations, leaders will rise up today so that King’s work and overall mission will not be lost and so that Labor Day will retain its meaning for the rights and fair treatment of all workers.