The substance of equality

Monday's inauguration embraced civil rights symbols.
Monday's inauguration embraced civil rights symbols. (SUSAN WALSH / Associated Press)
Posted: January 22, 2013

By Dedrick Muhammad Sr.

Monday's inauguration of President Obama was laced with symbolism embracing the legacy of the civil rights movement. As the ceremonies coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President Obama selected Myrlie Evers-Williams, a former chairwoman of the NAACP and the widow of slain NAACP activist Medgar Evers, to deliver the inaugural invocation. The president also used a Bible owned by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his swearing-in.

But while the president has adopted the symbolism of civil rights, these difficult times also require a substantive pursuit of the social and economic agenda of the movement.

King wrote the foreword of the 1967 Freedom Budget - a far-reaching, ambitious social proposal created by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago this summer. The budget proposed massive investments in public works and infrastructure, programs to improve skills and education, expansion of employment opportunity, affordable public health services, and a $2-an-hour increase in the minimum wage, to a level that would have been the equivalent of $13.79 in buying power today. (The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour).

The Freedom Budget's agenda looks startlingly relevant now, emphasizing issues such as job creation, living wages, access to health care, and wealth redistribution - needs that are still relevant and urgent in this country, and which our government must address before America's growing economic inequality becomes further entrenched.

Though much has changed since the late 1960s, too many of the same challenges remain with us. The black unemployment rate has remained twice that of whites for more than 50 years, and in the last four decades, racial wealth inequality has grown out of control. Moving America's 21st-century economy past the problems of the 20th century would require bold, decisive action on the order of the Freedom Budget.

Of course, policies proposed nearly 50 years ago are not precisely the policies we need today. But they do provide a useful guide. The 1967 Freedom Budget made a strong case for balancing America's budget through economic growth from the bottom up. It espoused a Keynesian view of the economy in which government spending doesn't just have the potential to allay poverty and inequality; it also stimulates spending, boosts the private sector, and puts the country in a better position to pay off its debt. The civil rights coalition saw the Freedom Budget as the kind of economic policy the country needed to bridge its divides and develop a strong, inclusive middle-class economy.

The failure to implement such a bold agenda is a key reason for the weakness of our current economy. This unfinished civil rights agenda is the substance that President Obama must embrace in his second term, just as he embraced the symbolism of civil rights in his inauguration. Bold government spending focused on broadening the American middle class, along with prudent budgeting, must become the pillars of economic policy.

Of course, none of that would be easy. It's easier to continue along the path we are on: a declining middle class, increasing economic inequality, and continuing racial disparity. Yet if anything is to be learned from our country's history, it is that long, hard fights bring the greatest rewards. Today, 50 years after King wrote Why We Can't Wait, the times require our president to stop waiting and to fulfill the civil rights economic agenda that can make a reality of what has only been a dream: an inclusive, strong middle-class economy.

Dedrick Muhammad Sr. is director of the NAACP's economic programs.

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