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How the Work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Was About Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

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Though the phraseology of diversity, equity, and inclusion was not expressly used in the way that it currently is during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s lifetime, I contend that King's life and work were, in large part, about the ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

King’s work was about diversity:

Dr. Marcus BrightDr. Marcus BrightKing’s actions reflected an understanding that embracing diversity was essential to advancing his civil rights and social justice mission. While the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization that he presided over, was primarily centered around the Black community, King recognized the importance of building a diverse coalition of people from different backgrounds.

Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, individuals from various racial and ethnic backgrounds played crucial roles in supporting and participating in the SCLC's efforts. These individuals served as organizers, advisors, fundraisers, marchers, and used their knowledge, skills, and positions of influence to advance the cause. Their involvement helped to leverage collective strength and broaden the impact of the movement.

One of the significant achievements of the Civil Rights Movement was the dismantling of racial segregation in various areas of life, such as schools, parks, lunch counters, theaters, and public transportation. By breaking down these barriers, the movement created opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to come together, live, work, and play in integrated spaces. This has helped to foster an increased level of understanding and collaboration among individuals from different races and ethnicities.

King’s work was about equity:

King’s work extended into the struggle for economic equity. He recognized that achieving true equality required intentional efforts to address the specific harms inflicted upon black people throughout the history of the United States. While advocating for equal access to opportunities, he also emphasized the need for justice in the form of compensation for the centuries of harm endured by black communities.

In his remarks during the March on Washington in 1963, King spoke metaphorically about a "check" owed to Black Americans. He used powerful imagery to illustrate how the United States had failed to fulfill its promises of equality, comparing it to a bad check marked 'insufficient funds.' This analogy highlighted the disparity between the rights and opportunities granted to white Americans and the ongoing systemic oppression faced by Black Americans.

King spoke again about a “check” in remarks about the Poor People’s Campaign that he was in the midst of organizing, saying that, “at the very same time that the government refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor,” King said. “But not only did they give the land, they built land-grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm; not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms; not only that, today, many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”

Drawing attention to blatant disparities, King emphasized that Black Americans were not asking for special treatment, rather they were seeking equitable compensation for the historical and ongoing injustices they had endured and the systematic denial of the tools and opportunities necessary for economic advancement.

King's call for a "check" was a demand for redress and corrective action to rectify the economic harm inflicted on Black Americans over centuries. His words point toward a belief that achieving economic equity required more than just equal access to opportunities; it required acknowledging and compensating for past wrongs.

The pursuit of economic justice in King’s later years included a broader call for economic equity for the masses through his advocacy for policies like a guaranteed annual income for all people and the efforts to open doors to jobs and economic development through the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket. The program’s selective buying campaigns and demonstrations pushed companies that had discriminated against Blacks to provide access to jobs, product placements, service contracts, and advertising dollars.

Companies were compelled to open positions that Blacks previously did not have access to. In Martin Deppe’s account of Operation Breadbasket in Chicago from 1966 to 1971 that “Breadbasket directly impacted the economic vitality of the African American community. Through negotiated ‘covenants’ between Breadbasket ministers and industry executives, including targeted ‘Don’t Buy’ campaigns, we added over twenty-two hundred new and several hundred upgraded jobs in milk, soft drinks, food chains, and superstores Walgreen and Sears. These jobs were added across all employment classifications. Other jobs were opened through contracts for black products and black service providers.”

King’s work was about inclusion:

A significant portion of King's mission was focused on advancing inclusion socially, politically, and economically. Throughout his advocacy work, he recognized the systemic barriers that excluded people from various aspects of society and fought to dismantle them.

King advocated for social inclusion by challenging racial segregation and promoting integration in multiple aspects of life. Through peaceful protests, speeches, and nonviolent direct action, he sought to raise awareness about the injustices faced by blacks and called for an end to the Jim Crow system of segregation.

One of the key achievements of King's work in partnership with many others in the area of social inclusion was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, affecting multiple areas of public life. It aimed to break down the legal barriers that perpetuated segregation and facilitated access to public facilities, employment opportunities, and educational institutions.

Another area where Black Americans faced exclusion was in political participation. King and others highlighted the numerous barriers that were used to prevent Black people from exercising their right to vote. These included poll taxes, discriminatory qualification tests, literacy exams, morality requirements, property ownership requirements, and voter voucher laws. By exposing these discriminatory practices, King aimed to bring attention to the injustice and put pressure on President Lyndon B. Johnson and the United States Congress to enact change.

Initially, Johnson hesitated to prioritize the Voting Rights Act due to the recent passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The violent events of “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, where marchers were brutally beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, drew national media attention and increased public awareness of the ongoing injustices. This ultimately led Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act to Congress and it was signed into law later that year.

In addition to working social and political inclusion, King pushed for economic inclusion. In his 1963 March on Washington speech, he described Black people in American as "living on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." This highlighted the need to address economic inequalities and create opportunities for economic advancement.

King described the transition of the Civil Rights Movement to focus on economic issues as being more complex than the previous fight for public accommodations and voting rights in a 1966 article in The Nation writing that “slums with hundreds of thousands of living units and not eradicated as easily as lunch counters or buses are integrated. Jobs are harder to create than voting rolls.” He went on to write that “negroes have benefited from a limited change that was emotionally satisfying but materially deficient.”

Throughout history, there have been many instances where black people were excluded from government-sponsored wealth transfers. One example of this is housing discrimination through the practice of redlining. King and his colleagues recognized the critical role housing plays in shaping opportunities and outcomes for marginalized communities.

One significant obstacle to economic inclusion was the practice of redlining, which deprived households of color from accessing fair housing opportunities. The Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934 with the intention of increasing homeownership, perpetuated systemic racism through redlining. This discriminatory practice, employed by both public and private sector actors, systematically denied individuals and families of color the chance to purchase homes in many neighborhoods.

Redlining persisted for over three decades until its prohibition by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Regrettably, by the time this legislation was enacted, the damage inflicted by redlining had already taken its toll. Households of color received a mere two percent of the FHA loans made between 1934 and 1968, severely hindering their access to the wealth-building potential of homeownership. This enduring disparity continues to manifest itself in the stark disparities in homeownership rates and the noticeable inequities in the neighborhoods and schools where households of color reside.

By advocating for open housing and the Fair Housing Act, King sought to dismantle the deeply rooted structures of inequality that prevented economic advancement for marginalized communities. He recognized that true economic inclusion required not only breaking down racial barriers but also addressing the long-lasting consequences of discriminatory practices like redlining. Through his leadership and advocacy, King shed light on the urgent need for fair housing policies and pushed for greater access to housing opportunities regardless of race or ethnicity.

As I argue that a great deal of King’s work was about advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, his work remains unfinished, especially in economic justice. I believe that King's push for economic equity and inclusion is especially relevant in our present day, particularly in light of the continuing wealth disparities highlighted by a recently Brookings Institution report. The significant wealth gap that the report shows serves as a stark reminder of the persistent economic challenges that continue to plague marginalized communities. While it is true that average household wealth grew in 2022, the fact that Black households hold only $15 for every $100 held by white households signals an urgent need to address systemic barriers and inequalities.

While King may not have used the exact terminology of diversity, equity, and inclusion during his lifetime, his life and work were undeniably rooted in these ideals. His tireless efforts to combat racial injustice, promote inclusivity, and advocate for economic equity laid the groundwork for the ongoing struggle for equitable access to opportunities today. Embracing King's vision means actively working toward creating a society that embraces diversity, upholds equity, and fosters true inclusion for all.

Dr. Marcus Bright is an author and social impact professional.

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