Editor’s Note: Cornell William Brooks is a former president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a visiting professor of Ethics, Law and Justice Movements at Boston University School of Law and School of Theology and a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
From pulpits and podiums across the country, Americans will be reminded on Monday of the relevance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s message in 2018. Some time ago, during my tenure as president and CEO of the NAACP, I was painfully reminded of the timeliness of Dr. King in a setting he might not have dreamed of, during a conversation he might have not imagined.
During a reception for supporters of civil rights, I looked around a penthouse apartment filled with beautiful art, owned by black owners dressed even more impeccably than their decor. The room was filled with well-pedigreed African Americans with impressive resumés. And it was against this backdrop that I gave a short talk on the importance of the right to vote and the battle against voter suppression.
Upon finished my fundraising homily, a well-to-do business leader said to me, quite sincerely: “Voting rights are fine, but our people need economic justice. Were Martin Luther King, Jr. alive today, he would be talking about economic justice, jobs and business. How hard is it to vote, anyway?”
But he was sadly mistaken – these two issues are inextricably linked. In the more than half century since Dr. King battled these two issues, the need to address poverty and income inequality through a pro-democracy campaign that eliminates voter suppression remains critical.
In 2018, many Americans find it as hard to vote as they do to make a living. During the 2016 presidential campaign there were 15 states, including states that are usually critical battlegrounds like Virginia, Ohio and Wisconsin, with strict voter ID laws that suppressed the votes of often poor and minority prospective voters without a required ID. Dr. King’s work suggests this year is the time for both a cutting-edge economic justice movement and radical pro-democracy movement that collectively protects and expands voting rights.
Many Americans remember, in 2015, when Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and President Barack Obama walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery – a march that culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And, in August 2018, many Americans will commemorate the unfinished Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, in which Dr. King planned to occupy Washington D.C. in a tent city to seek economic justice. Dr. King did not live to complete the Poor People’s Campaign because he was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a strike for economic justice on behalf of sanitation workers.
The issue is not merely the number of people who exist in what Dr. King called an “airtight cage of poverty” but also the growing number of people living on gilded pedestals of massive wealth. Over a little more than a generation, the bottom half of wage earners saw their share of America’s wealth shrink, while those in the top half of wage earners saw their share enviably expand.
In 1980, the bottom half of Americans earned a fifth of the nation’s income, twice as much as the top 1%. Today, however, an affluent 1% bring home over 20% of America’s income, while the bottom half earns just 13% – giving economic credence to those who know intuitively that “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” The richest 1% the nation’s families control a record-setting 38.6% of America’s wealth, nearly double the wealth of the bottom 90%.
These numbers represent parents who silently admit to themselves what they dare not say aloud to their children: the future is dimmer for the next generation. This is disproportionately true for poor people of color – as well as white working-class Trump voters.
While Trump voters and voters of color may be disproportionately affected by income inequality, only African Americans have had their votes suppressed with “almost surgical precision,” according to one federal appeals court. Since the legally wrong-headed and morally wrong-hearted Supreme Court decision Shelby v. Holder, a large majority of states have enacted or attempted to enact discriminatory voting restrictions: strict ID laws, closing polls, limiting the time to register and/or vote and purging of voter rolls.
Moreover, the criminal justice system also disenfranchises voters. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, where I am a senior fellow, more than 6 million of our fellow citizens can’t vote because they have a criminal conviction, so much so that one in every 13 voting-age African Americans lacks the ability to vote.
Income inequality and voter suppression are not separate challenges to our democracy. Voter suppression is how monied interests perpetuate income inequality. Voter suppression also prevents the reforms that create equality. For example, the recently passed Trump tax cuts are regarded by economists as representing a wealth transfer to the richest Americans.
This tax cut was enacted while pro-economic justice reforms have stalled in Congress. These reforms include: infrastructure investments to revitalize poor communities, student loan reform to lighten debt loads and legislative change to make it easier for those with criminal records to work.
Having risked his life to secure voting rights and having lost his life seeking economic justice, Dr. King’s celebrated dream must inspire a pro-democracy movement in 2018 that radically expands voting rights to secure economic opportunity. Such a movement must include automatic registration, election modernization, campaign finance reform and felony re-enfranchisement – to empower Americans to vote for economic justice reform. To get policies that grow wages and jobs, you need votes – and a movement.