Obama and the Search for Racial Justice

In a Sunday interview, the president discussed a fraying social contract between government and citizens.

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Obama’s efforts to link the contemporary crisis of racial injustice, poverty and unemployment to the March on Washington are especially important as we approach the 50th anniversary of the demonstration. As civil rights activists organize a massive demonstration scheduled to take place in the nation’s capital on Aug. 24, 2013, the president words tacitly approve and acknowledge these protests.

Martin Luther King Jr. remains an unappreciated champion of poor people in this regard. King’s status as the civil rights movement’s prophet of nonviolence and racial justice allows us to ignore and overlook his commitment to economic justice. In the aftermath of the passage of the civil rights legislation, King moved north to Chicago, where he focused his attention squarely on the issue of poverty, which he blasted as an immoral blight in the richest nation on earth.

In 1968 King helped organize a “Poor People’s Campaign,” a sit-in in Washington until Congress passed meaningful employment and anti-poverty legislation. The genius of King’s vision resided in his appreciation of America’s diverse racial and ethnic character, so he purposely recruited poor whites from Appalachia, Mexican Americans from the Southwest, blacks from the Mississippi Delta and Native Americans to highlight the plight of millions living in desperate conditions. King’s death in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, came in the midst of his efforts to help 1,000 striking black sanitation workers in a local movement that he considered an expression of the national crisis of race and democracy that gripped the nation.

President Obama’s forceful acknowledgment of the link between racial equality and economic justice echoes King’s understanding that these issues were intertwined. The president’s unusual candor on this vitally important matter deserves our praise, encouragement and action. His bold words should be followed up by a stream of executive orders designed to promote jobs, racial justice and economic security for Americans whom this economy has left behind, including a candid conversation about capitalism’s jagged edges and its impact on poor communities of color. The national commemoration of the March on Washington offers the nation a rare opportunity to connect a national conversation on race and democracy to public policy that can transform democratic institutions and the lives of all of our citizens.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.