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Faltered Dreams: What the Deaths of Dr. King and Freddie Gray Say About the Nation

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young girl and freddie gray

This April marks the one-year anniversary of the 2015 Baltimore rebellion and the 48th anniversary of the Baltimore rebellion of 1968 . The 1968 rebellion started on April 6 and lasted for over a week, resulting in six deaths, 700 injuries, 5,800 arrested and in today’s dollars, nearly $80 million in damage. The Baltimore rebellion of 1968 was part of a nationwide phenomenon of the urban black poor taking to the streets in rage over the assassination of Dr. King, a Black Southern man firmly rooted in the Black upper class and not known for success in the urban north or with their youth.

Forty-seven years later, Baltimore is an industrial city in a post-industrial world, continuing to follow national trends. Baltimore was one of many American cities that erupted in protest over the death of young African-Americans in police custody. The arrest and killing of Freddie Gray was the Baltimore example of a national phenomenon. The 2015 insurrection, though, was much smaller-scale than that of 1968, thanks in part to the defensive posture of the police department ordered by the mayor’s office. The “riot” only lasted the night, with about 250 people arrested and no deaths.

On April 4, 2016, the anniversary of the murder of Dr. King, I had a series of interviews for my Race and Wealth Podcast, talking with Baltimore residents who were in the middle of the rebellion or had been working with those who most regularly face the never ending violence of living in poverty. From these conversations, it was clear that the death of Freddie Gray and the city’s reactions were deeply rooted in the history of Baltimore, stretching back to the time of Dr. King and beyond. Contrary to the popular narrative that the civil rights movement brought racial equity to the United States, those in the movement knew that ending segregationist laws in the South was just one step in a long journey needed to dismantle white supremacy. Dr. King explained the civil rights movement in two phases: “The first phase had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality… When Negroes looked for the second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared.” In 2016, the United States continues to fail to implement the second phase of the civil rights movement.

Dr. King noted during the last few years of his life “I have felt my dreams falter as I have traveled through the rat-infested slums of our big city ghettos and watched our jobless and hopeless poor sweltering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” Dr. King and those in the black freedom struggle of the late 60’s came together to support an economic proposal that everyone from Stokely Carmichael, the prince of Black Power, to the NAACP agreed was necessary to bridge racial inequality. It was called the Freedom Budget and was released in 1967. The Freedom Budget called for full employment at a time when African Americans had twice the unemployment rate of whites, a disparity that still persists to this day. The Freedom Budget called for a minimum wage that in today’s dollars would be about $14 an hour, affordable medical care, decent housing for all and recognized the negative effects of pollution that was disproportionately effecting African Americans. The economic demands of the civil rights movement would in large part never be implemented. Dr. King would be assassinated and his Poor People’s Campaign ending in defeat barely six months after his death.

The murder of Dr. King symbolizes the defeat of the civil rights movement and the failure to attain the socio-economic demands of the second phase of the movement. The death of Freddie Gray and the protests that his plight helped to inspire should serve as a reminder that the nation, even nearing the end of the second term of the nation’s first black president, has failed to take the necessary and challenging economic steps to bridge racial inequality. The contemporary 99% and Black Lives Matter protests are contemporary echoes of the long call in the United States to live in a nation that truly provides economic opportunity for all. Dr. King said a few days before his assassination “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” Sadly the nation has been devoid of the will for almost 50 years since King’s death and a year after the death of Freddie Gray the nation still has a lack of will to comprehensively address racial economic inequality.

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Dedrick Asante-Muhammad is host of the Race and Wealth Podcast and Director of the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at the Corporation for Economic Development.

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