Once again, Martin Luther King, Jr. is being justly recognized as one of the most important civil rights leaders this country has known—but his legacy of demanding economic justice for everyone is too often forgotten.
We need to remember that, in February 1968, members of King’s premier civil rights group, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, drafted a letter demanding “an economic and social Bill of Rights” that would promise all citizens the right to a job, the right to a minimum income, and the right to decent housing, among others. And on 10 March 1968, just weeks before his death, he spoke to a union group in New York about what he called “the other America.” He was preparing to launch a Poor People’s Campaign whose premise was that issues of jobs and of justice for all Americans, black and white, were inextricably intertwined.
So, while King would have pleased that death rates for black and Hispanic adults have fallen since 1999, he would have been horrified that death rates for whites, particularly women and young adults, have risen—mostly as a consequence of drug overdoses.
Researchers are struggling to come up with an answer to the question of why whites in particular are doing so poorly. No one has a clear answer, but researchers repeatedly speculate that the nation is seeing a cohort of whites who are isolated and left out of the economy and society and who have gotten ready access to cheap heroin and to prescription narcotic drugs.
“There are large numbers of people who never get established in the economy, who live outside family relationships and are on the edge of poverty,” Dr. Hayward said. Many end up taking prescription narcotics, he added.
“Poverty and stress, for example, are risk factors for misuse of prescription narcotics,” Dr. Hayward said.
Eileen Crimmins, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, said the causes of death in these younger people were largely social — “violence and drinking and taking drugs.” Her research shows that social problems are concentrated in the lower education group.
“For too many, and especially for too many women,” she said, “they are not in stable relationships, they don’t have jobs, they have children they can’t feed and clothe, and they have no support network.”
“It’s not medical care, it’s life,” she said. “There are people whose lives are so hard they break.”
That’s why today, as much as in King’s time, we need an economic and social Bill of Rights for all Americans.