The University Record, January 23, 1996

Davis' vision for future: Full employment for all

By Jared Blank 

A standing-room-only crowd filled the Business School's Hale Auditorium to hear actor/director Ossie Davis reflect on the struggle for freedom and jobs for African Americans that is part of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Known to the younger generation for his roles in Spike Lee movies, Davis said he came to give the "Reflections on Martin" speech as a form of education---for himself. "I came to get far more than I am capable of giving," Davis told the faculty, students and staff. "I consider myself a fellow student---one among many---in a common pursuit of the truth."

Davis stressed that the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. was actually called "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," noting that "jobs" came before "freedom" in the title. "If you ain't got no job, freedom won't help you much."

Summing up the progress the country has made in accomplishing the goals of jobs and freedom, Davis said that those who now say there has been no improvement in freedom for African Americans are taking the concept of freedom for granted.

But, he said, "the `jobs' part of it is worse, in a sense, than ever. We should take responsibility for fulfilling that part of the dream.

"Full employment was what we had in mind," he added, "that if we had money in our pockets, we would buy products and stimulate the economy." And, if there were enough jobs, "the stresses that would come with integration would be minimized."

Davis suggested that President Lyndon Johnson supported full employment as a way to make integration work and make America feel good about itself, but the Gulf of Tonkin incident caused Johnson to spend most of his resources on the war in Vietnam and allow the "war on poverty" to go by the wayside.

Davis pointed out that many Blacks felt "Lyndon is the Santa Claus who will bring us the goodies. Well, Christmas came and passed and no one brought the presents."

King declared himself against the war in Vietnam and felt that all of Johnson's promises "about the war against poverty had been abandoned, if not lost," Davis said. While Johnson's war against poverty never got off the ground, however, Davis said King left a legacy of the fight for freedom and economic independence.

"Poverty is still looked at in our country as contagious," Davis said. "No one wants to live near poor people. There's something about poor people that makes us a little squeamish, that makes us want to look the other way." To counter this, he argued, "the closer you can get to zero unemployment, the better it is for the society."

Davis decried the drive in the 1980s toward supply-side economics, and the thinking that 5 percent or 6 percent unemployment was natural. He urged the audience to remember that "the economy was made for the people, and not the people for the economy."

"We have as a resource [in the fight against poverty] the memory and method of Martin Luther King," Davis concluded.