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Updated 4:00 PM January 24, 2007




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Business School speaker calls for economic justice

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was more than a dreamer. He was an economist and a doer, according to writer and syndicated columnist Julianne Malveaux, who talked about King's lesser-known role as a fighter for economic justice in her 2007 Ross School of Business Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture.

More than 500 students and members of the community gathered in Mendelssohn Theater for Malveaux's lecture, titled "Economic Justice in the Beloved Community: Where Do We Go from Here?"

King's idea of a fair economy was one that works for everyone and includes fair trade, budget and tax policy, protection of worker rights and equal access to resources.

In King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, he proclaimed that the country gave African Americans "a bad check ... a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' We've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
(Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

"If we could get people to say 'cash a check' as often as they said 'I have a dream,' we might get a different kind of vision of Dr. King," Malveaux said. "We have to put Dr. King in economic context. We can't just have him talk about the beloved community as utopian. For him it was about a commitment to nonviolence, but also to economic justice."

One example of King's commitment to economic justice took place in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, where African American garbage collectors were paid 60 percent less than white co-workers. On rainy days, African American workers were sent home without pay while white workers were allowed to work inside and were paid. Prevented from organizing, African American workers carried signs asserting "I am a man."

"What we do know about this notion of Dr. King as a dreamer is that he was also a doer," Malveaux said. "He was not dreaming in Memphis, he was trying to raise the wages of garbage workers."

In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, King 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 and freedom for their spirits." Malveaux characterized King's "audacity" as an economic platform about the distribution of resources and eradication of poverty.

Malveaux said 38 million Americans still live in poverty. Many working people run out of money before the end of the month and cannot afford housing in 20 major U.S. cities. Economic injustice is perpetrated by predatory lending practices, urban blight and credit card fraud. This is everyone's problem, she added, citing one of King's tenets: Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

Malveaux also addressed Proposal 2, a state constitutional amendment passed in 2006 that bans affirmative action programs in public institutions. She showed that throughout U.S. history, "giveaways, or subsidies, have been a way of life." Immigrants in the 1890s often received land, the benefits of land-grant colleges and, eventually, farm subsidies, which were not available to African Americans. Post-World War II, white veterans had access to education through the GI Bill and cheap loans for housing, advantages that African American veterans could not partake in until civil rights legislation was passed in the 1960s.

"Why do we now suddenly draw a line when African American people are saying, 'there is a gap here, and we want to close the gap?'" she said. "You cannot have an inclusive society unless everyone has access. You cannot exclude people of color from commerce and expect them to be full participants in our economy."

Malveaux emphasized the need to close the gaps in education by improving the quality of education in the inner city and making college more accessible to all people—perhaps through free tuition—so graduates are not burdened by excessive debt due to student loans.

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