Planet Princeton

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Call for Economic Justice

Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, speaks at Princeton University's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.Photo by Amaris Hardy, Princeton University Office of Communications
Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, speaks at Princeton University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Photo: Amaris Hardy, Princeton University Office of Communications.

Woodrow Wilson School Dean Cecilia Rouse highlighted Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for economic justice and the Poor People’s Campaign in a speech at Princeton University this afternoon in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Several hundred people gathered in Richardson Auditorium for the annual King Day celebration. The Trenton Children’s Chorus kicked off the event, singing in front of a large screen that displayed a photo of King.

Rouse discussed King’s speech in Memphis the day before he was assassinated. In the speech he highlighted the need for improved economic conditions for the poor, and called on people not to just think of freedom from poverty as an other-worldly state that would only become a reality in heaven.

“It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here,” King said in the speech. “It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.”

King was visiting Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike, and he saw the fight for economic justice as the next phase of the civil rights movement in the United States.

The Poor People’s Campaign, organized by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans of diverse backgrounds. The campaign was carried out in the wake of King’s assassination, with leaders giving the U.S. Congress a set of demands and participants setting up a 3,000-person tent city on the Washington Mall, where they stayed for six weeks.

Rouse recalled how her own family visited the campaign’s headquarters and participated in protests, and she showed slides of herself and her sister carrying posters at the time.

“For King, the promised land wasn’t just about being equal under the law,” she said. “He wanted legal rights to translate into economic and human rights.”

Rouse looked at how the country has fared since the Poor People’s Campaign.

About 15 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line in 1966, Rouse said. Today the percentage is about the same.

“Today about 45 million people in the United States live on less than $24,000 (a year) for a family of four,” she said. For African-Americans, the poverty rate is down from 42 percent in 1966 to 27 percent today. Still, that is twice the poverty rate of whites.

She described how many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, and are just one incident away from financial ruin. There is no safety net for people who can’t find work or are unable to work, she said.

Meanwhile, the income of the top one percent of Americans has quadrupled over the same period, Rouse said.

But she said progress has been made toward King’s goals.

“His work was not in vain,” she said. “While the Poor People’s Campaign did not get everything it sought, we have clearly seen improvements in economic stability and increased access to housing and education.”

The percentage of Americans with a high school diploma is 88 percent today, compared with about 50 percent in 1966, she said. The largest gains among blacks, whose high school diploma completion rate has risen to 85 percent from 28 percent. Today, 32 percent of adults have completed at least four years of college, compared with 10 percent in 1966.

Many blacks and Hispanics attend poorer-quality schools and there are still disparities in post-secondary school attendance. Rouse said the K-12 school system needs to be reformed so that all children have access to quality public education, and that diversity must be increased in higher education by finding a place for all qualified and motivated students, regardless of their race, ethnicity or economic background.

She called on the audience to continue King’s work on a daily basis, and said King would be proud of the nonviolent protests that have taken place across this country in the past few years.

“As the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner have shown, we are not there yet,” she said. “As the racial tensions on Princeton’s campus in 2015 have shown, we are not there yet. When the poverty rate in some counties in Appalachia reaches as high as 56 percent, we are not there yet. With over half of the children attending public schools being eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, we are not there yet. When nearly 600,000 individuals are homeless on a single January night in the U.S., a quarter of whom are children and nearly 40 percent of whom are in families, we are not there yet. But we cannot quit now.”

President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in opening remarks for the celebration that King would be proud of recent protests on the Princeton University campus.

“Many on our campus have engaged in impassioned protests and vigorous dialogue about issues of diversity and inclusion here at Princeton and in our society at large, spurred by the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, in New York City, and elsewhere around this country,” he said. “This peaceful and powerful activism of our students and others in our campus community is a direct reflection of the legacy of Dr. King and his incomparable service to society. ”

U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman. .Photo by Amaris Hardy, Princeton University Office of Communications.
U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman. Photo: Amaris Hardy, Princeton University Office of Communications.

U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman also addressed the audience, saying that the U.S. Congress and federal courts will likely reconsider numerous issues related to civil rights. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act being signed into law. She criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for eviscerating part of that law, and added that rights for women, blacks, gays and lesbians are on “someone’s plate, in someone’s mind to discuss and to revisit in a different way, and not in an encouraging and building way, I might add.”

“We have so much more at stake today than we’ve had in a very long time,” she said, urging everyone to exercise their right to vote and educate young people about why it is important to vote.

Princeton University also honored  employees David Campbell and Kenneth Grayson at the celebration.

Campbell, a senior psychologist in counseling and psychological services, received the Martin Luther King Journey Award for Special Achievement for empowering students from diverse backgrounds.

Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber congratulates Martin Luther King Journey Award winners David Campbell (l) and Kenneth Grayson (r).
Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber congratulates Martin Luther King Journey Award winners David Campbell (l) and Kenneth Grayson (r).

“In helping students from all backgrounds better understand and confront the challenges of life on this campus, and in helping his colleagues provide a more nurturing and responsive approach to supporting our students, David has enabled many Princetonians to thrive here,” Eisgruber said.

Grayson, a shop foreman in the school’s electric shop, received the Martin Luther King Journey Award for Lifetime Achievement for his commitment to campus life over nearly 45 years.  Grayson, who also sings in the choir at the Princeton University Chapel, is a beloved figure on campus.

“Kenny Grayson is a fixture behind the scenes, as foreman of the electric shop, and behind the microphone, lending his golden voice to many campus events,” Eisgruber said. “Known affectionately across campus as ‘Kenny G,’ he is deeply respected for his professional expertise, his personal warmth, and his commitment to supporting our community of students, faculty, staff, alumni and visitors.”

The Trenton Children’s Chorus capped off the event, leading the audience in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The Trenton Children's Chorus performs at the beginning of the King Day celebration at Princeton University.
The Trenton Children’s Chorus performs at the beginning of the King Day celebration at Princeton University. Photo: Amaris Hardy, Princeton University Office of Communications.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

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