Putting Our House in Order: Dr. King’s Call for Economic and Social Rights in the United States

We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together…you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of       the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” —Martin Luther King, Jr. (May 1967)

This MLK day, in the wake of vicious economic inequality that continues to batter American families in almost every corner of the country, it is imperative to renew his call for putting our own house in order with regard to basic human rights, such as housing, healthcare, education and decent jobs.  We continue to face shocking inequalities in these areas which challenge the moral underpinnings of our national identity.  Dr. King called us out as a nation for a hypocrisy which we have not yet addressed.  On the contrary, these inequalities have deepened significantly in the last decades touching on every type of community making up our nation. 

We are entering into an election year in which the theme “fairness” and “economic recovery” are likely to play a large role.  And while these themes are clearly relevant, we must also consider that our current problems go beyond issues of even fairness.  They raise the more profound questions about whether we are willing to create a policy and economic infrastructure that respects basic human dignity and freedom, and enables all of us to reach our full potential individually and as part of our communities.   In short, they raise the fundamental question of human rights and equality.

It has been a politics of abuse and concentration of power that has led us to this crisis of human rights.  Only a democratization of power, with strong engagement from the multitude of diverse communities across the nation, and an authentic commitment to protecting all economic and social rights can turn the current challenges into the revolution in values called for by Dr. King.  We owe a great deal to his legacy, and the only way to genuinely honor it is to heed his prophetic words.  The United States has a rich history of progressive movements that have contributed to the arc of history bending towards justice, it is our turn to take up the next phase of that history and bring human rights home.