Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his landmark "I Have a Dream" speech.
But while it was an inspiring moment that defined a major milepost in the struggle for civil rights, King's speech looms so large in the popular imagination that it has cast an historical shadow over King's larger legacy, as well as the rest of the day's events. His was the tenth of ten speeches capping a daylong "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," and while King strayed from his prepared text to focus mostly on freedom, nearly half of the ten demands (pdf) specifically articulated by King and the rest of the march's organizers were economic, including massive public works and job training programs for the unemployed, a federal law prohibiting discrimination in public and private hiring, a broadening of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and "a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living."
"Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this," the organizers duly noted back in 1963.
Adjusted for inflation, $2.00 in 1963 dollars would be worth $15.27 today. And so in a very real historical sense, one of the core demands underlying King's famous "I Have a Dream Speech," was a $15 an hour minimum wage. It is a dream that has remained unfulfilled to this day.
As King and his fellow organizers understood, political freedom without economic freedom isn't really freedom at all. Indeed, King went on to become an outspoken champion on behalf of economic justice for all races—so to emphasize just one part of his dream at the expense of another is to both misinterpret and misrepresent his legacy.
And so tomorrow, when thousands of fast food and other low-wage service workers nationwide walk off their jobs in pursuit of a $15 an hour minimum wage, do not scoff that these strikers are unworthy or that their demands are unrealistic, unless you are willing to scoff at the same dream that Martin Luther King Jr. marched in pursuit of fifty years ago today.