Why Martin Luther King’s Dream Is Still Unfulfilled


Rather than simply celebrating the accomplishments of his life on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, this year ThinkProgress wants to take a look back at the unfinished parts of King’s legacy. While the civil rights leader changed the conversation around race and justice in the U.S., many of his goals never came to fruition.

Here’s a look at four of the things King demanded but never saw completed:

1. A living wage. One of the demands protesters listed for the March on Washington was a minimum wage. “Anything less than $2.00 an hour,” King and his compatriots argued, fails to “give all Americans a decent standard of living.” In 2014 dollars, a $2 an hour wage would work out to about $15.27. But minimum wage is actually much, much lower — less than half of that — today. Forty-two percent of those earning minimum wage are people of color.

2. Desegregation. King hoped to see the end not just of legal segregation in the South, but also of the de facto segregation that existed in Northern businesses, housing, and schools. He even toured Chicago advocating for the end of this kind of segregation, saying civil rights leaders needed to “eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.’’ But today, public schools are more segregated than they were 40 years ago. The unemployment rate for black Americans has remained above 10 percent for most of the last half a century, and black workers earn on average $22,000 less a year than their white counterparts. Black homebuyers are shown significantly fewer homes than their white counterparts when shopping for a house. Ethnic identity is still the key factor in where people reside.

3. Fair voting. King campaigned extensively for legislation like the Voting Rights Act. And he lived to see it passed. But legislators, largely Republicans, have been working to roll back the rights protected under the VRA since its inception. Those efforts have become even more acute recently. More than half the states introduced restrictive voting legislation in 2013 alone, according to a review by the Brennan Center, at a total of 92 separate bills in 33 states. The Supreme Court also struck down a major portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, allowing states previously subject to the VRA to put voting laws on the books without federal oversight. Now a group of members of congress — including Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who incidentally established the first official Martin Luther King Day — is working to undo the damage of that decision.

4. Unfettered unionization. King spoke out specifically about anti-union “Right to Work” laws. “[W]e must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work,’” he said in 1961. “Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us.” Over 50 years later, right to work laws are still on the books. In fact, Michigan passed its own right to work law in 2012. But King’s assessment was right: No matter their unionized status, workers in “right to work” states today earn $1,500 less a year than their counterparts, and are less likely to receive other benefits like health care and pensions.