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Honoring MLK: The unfinished journey towards economic freedom 

This January 15, our nation again will observe the only national holiday designated as a day of service. The Martin Luther King, Jr. federal was first observed in 1986. But it took another 17 years for all 50 states to recognize the holiday, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.   


While Rev. King dedicated his life to the pursuit of freedom, peace, and justice for all Americans, too many economically marginalized people are reduced to fighting over scraps while others enjoy the nation’s economic bounty.  


In 2022, 37.9 million people – 11.5 percent of the nation – lived in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. Additionally, Black individuals made up 20.1% of the population in poverty in 2022 but only 13.5 percent of the total population. Black individuals made up 20.1% of the population in poverty in 2022 but only 13.5 percent of the total population, according to the Census Bureau.  


The federal minimum wage, currently at $7.25 an hour, has not increased since July 2009, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Standards.   


And despite increases that take effect in many states in 2024, workers still earn only $7.25 per hour in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).  


On December 10, 1964, Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee presented its Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. King saying in part, “[D]iscrimination will still persist in the economic field and in social intercourse. Realistic as he is, Martin Luther King knows this.” 


Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King said, “I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.”  


“The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama to Oslo bears witness to this truth,” Dr. King continued. “This is a road over which millions of Negroes are travelling to find a new sense of dignity… I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.” 


“This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future,” added Dr. King. “It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom…Today I come to Oslo as a trustee, inspired and with renewed dedication to humanity. I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood. I say I come as a trustee, for in the depths of my heart I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally.”  

Dr. King would urge Americans to remain vigilant and vocal in fighting attacks against diversity, equity, and inclusion.  

A true tribute to Dr. King would be a renewed groundswell of advocacy that ensures our march towards full freedom refuses to go back; but instead moves forward in the same determination of his life’s work. Social equity cannot be sustained without economic parity.  

As a people and as a nation, let us confront these and other challenges in his memory.  

Charlene Crowell is a senior fellow with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at   


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