On April 4, 2021, the day of his assassination, we honour the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the legacy of his impassioned fight against racism and inequality.
When we think of Dr. King, we vividly recall his integral work as a leader of the American civil rights movement. Although prominent for his racial activism, what some don’t know is that King was also a fierce champion for eradicating poverty and promoting economic justice. In fact, at the heart of his advocacy and up to his last breath, King pronounced the evils of poverty are just as pernicious as the evils of racism.
Essential to his social justice vision of unyoking the long-suffering legacy of racism of Black people, King identified poverty as a great oppressor. He argued that ensuring Black people – indeed all people – the dignity of employment and the opportunity to earn a fair income was fundamental to ending centuries of racism.
Exactly one year prior to the date of his assassination, King gave a speech declaring “the whole world is doomed” if, in the evolution of human rights, “something isn’t done, and done in a hurry” to bring racialized people “out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect.” King urged that society must “abolish” poverty based on his steadfast belief that the right to economic security is paramount in order to truly eliminate racism.
Shortly before his death in April 1968, King was leading protests against racism and poverty. For King, workers’ rights, employment free of discrimination and the right to a reasonable standard of living were core to remedying racial injustice. One of King’s last projects before his death was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, intended to launch daily anti-poverty demonstrations starting in May 1968 in Washington D.C., to demand human rights for poor people of all backgrounds. Tragically, King was assassinated and unable to see the estimated 50,000 demonstrators attend the Poor People’s March at Washington Memorial in June 1968.
King’s concerns in the 1960s remain relevant today, if not more so, given how the pandemic has exacerbated racial and economic disparities and intensified the impacts of intergenerational poverty. One in seven Ontarians live in poverty. King’s legacy is as important in today’s battle against poverty as his historical lessons about racism. With Ontario looking ahead to post-pandemic recovery, King’s wisdom must guide how we envision racial and economic equality for our ‘new normal’ society
To be free from poverty is a human right and should be understood as a racial, social, economic, cultural and geographic imperative. Certain groups identified by the grounds in the Ontario Human Rights Code disproportionately experience poverty together with poor health, lower education, precarious work and other social and economic hardships. Unless we address the underlying injustices and root causes of health, income and education disadvantage, the ties between racism and economic suffering will, as King warned, strangle vulnerable communities.
The pandemic has disproportionately impacted the physical and economic health of Black, Indigenous and racialized groups. A 2021 Stats Canada study on the labour market during the pandemic reveals the unemployment rate among Black Canadians is about 70% higher than that among non-racialized Canadians and Black Canadians earn on average $3.92 less than non-racialized groups. Recent data confirms that 50% of Toronto’s COVID-19 cases have been people with low incomes and almost 80% of the cases are racialized individuals.
As the third-wave of the pandemic pummels Ontarians, King’s words and the urgency of his message to fight poverty in tandem with racism must serve as a guiding framework. Post-pandemic planning must be founded on equity-rights considerations to protect racialized and low-income communities. Our recovery must provide for comprehensive workers’ rights, including paid sick leave and proactive protection of temporary foreign workers, childcare benefits, safe, accessible and affordable housing and access to comprehensive mental health services to ensure that recovery is manifested for all and not only for certain segments of society.
If we are going to memorialize Dr. King at his death, let’s not forget that some of his final homilies were against the evils of poverty. To honour his legacy, we must use a human-rights framework and intersectional analysis to poverty. Post-pandemic recovery planning must simultaneously target poverty reduction and uphold human rights so that all people can live with dignity, peace and equality.
Ena Chadha is Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.