Saturday, February 13, 2010



Had Dr. Martin Luther King lived until his birthday, January 15, he would be 81. It is
interesting to speculate how the octogenarian might spend his time. If he is
anything like some of his peers – Ambassador Andrew Young or Rev. Joseph Lowery
– he’d still be involved in some form of activism, perhaps combining religious service
with involvement in domestic and international affairs, perhaps with dimensions that
included some involvement in commerce (such as Mr. Young’s consulting company
Good Works). What might Dr. King think or say about the state we find ourselves in
today? A year since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, would he embrace
the concept of post-racialism that some bandy about? Would he reflect on his words
during the March on Washington and conclude that the dream he so brilliantly
articulated had been realized? Or would he be forced to conclude that the check is
still marked “insufficient funds”.
I am sure there will be those who will quote Dr. King’s dream that people would be
judged by “the content of their characters, not the color of their skin”. That’s the
easiest King quote to use, but it is not the most telling. In his Nobel Peace Prize
acceptance speech he said, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere
can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds,
peace, dignity and freedom for their spirits.” Have any of these things yet been
attained? In the middle of our recession there are millions who go hungry. On
Sunday, the New York Times reported that one in 50 American households have no
income except food stamps. You can’t pick up a single paper without reading of the
foreclosure crisis, and the increasing economic dislocation, including homelessness,
which goes with it.

Dr. King spoke of education, but the ways we fail to invest in education are
shameful. Students graduate from college with staggering amounts of debt, and
many enter college from inner city high schools that poorly prepare them for
advanced study. Education and culture? Please. Our global competitors are
investing so much more in education than we are that a nation that once led the
world is now struggling to keep up with countries we once described as
“developing.” We have made the decision not to invest fully in education as the
demographic pipeline to college has browned, suggesting that our investment
decision has at least a little something to do with race.

Dr. Martin Luther King said we came to the nation’s capital to cash a check, and he
said, in 1963, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory
note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred
obligation, American has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has
come back marked ‘insufficient funds’. We refuse to believe that there are
insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

Actually there have been sufficient funds to bail out the financial sector, but
insufficient funds to rewrite the mortgages of those they decimated, sufficient funds to help the auto industry but not ailing Detroit or laid off auto workers. When Dr.
King spoke of insufficient funds, he was speaking of the racial economic justice that
we have not yet attained, and that we are unlikely to attain unless aggressive,
corrective measures are taken.

The Congressional Black Caucus has been talking about corrective matters when
they asked President Obama to consider targeting recovery programs toward the
African American community that suffers from an extraordinarily high unemployment
rate. President Obama has rightly said that he leads a nation, not a race, but if
another group, say whites, experienced disproportionately high unemployment you
can bet there would be a targeted program for them. Indeed, one can argue that
while the bank bailout didn’t happen on President Obama’s watch, there was an
economic recovery program targeted toward just one sector of the population.
What might Dr. King say when confronted with these circumstances? While it is
impossible to predict, I think that 47 years after “I have a dream”, he would still
demand that our nation “cash the check.”

(Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women.  She can be reached at

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