Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
In the years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis fighting for economic justice, whatever progress black families and workers have made has been dwarfed by the economic trajectory of whites in the county.
The Martin Luther King Jr. who arrived in Memphis in 1968 was an activist whose mission had evolved from demanding the right to vote and to integrate public buses to demanding economic justice for poor people. In Memphis, King was advocating for more livable wages and better working conditions for city garbage and sanitation workers. It was the beginning of a larger agenda he was building out called the “Poor People’s Campaign.”
King was killed in Memphis before he had a chance to realize this new campaign’s potential. He would not live to see Mayor Henry Loeb finally acquiesce to the sanitation workers’ demands to raise their pay—an agreement hastened, no doubt, by King’s assassination. The pay bump was a modest fifteen cents above the $1.65-an-hour many of them were paid, which itself was just a nickel away from the federal minimum wage. King’s murder also forced Memphis to enact a labor union dues checkoff for city employees—a practice that is now being challenged nationally in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite the concessions made to the sanitation workers, not much improved financially for them, nor for African-American families around the majority-black city and surrounding county in the decades after. Poverty rates for black families have dropped overall, but Memphis today is still considered the poorest large metropolitan area in the country. The children of Shelby County, where Memphis sits, have actually become poorer since the 1980s, with black youth experiencing poverty at four times the rate of white youth. As MLK50.com editor and Memphis native Wendi C. Thomas recently wrote for CityLab, “In many ways, Memphis is still a city that has squandered King’s sacrifice.”
King believed that the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” and perhaps that is true for morality, but that has not been the case thus far for racial equity in Memphis. A new poverty analysis from the Memphis-based National Civil Rights Museum and the University of Memphis’s Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change shows why.
Looking at the charts and graphs on education and jobs for African Americans in Shelby County, you see the pendulum swinging upward toward progress since King’s death. But you also find, in just about every category, that whatever progress African Americans have made is dwarfed by the economic trajectory of whites in the county. In many cases, black people in Memphis are only just hitting certain academic and financial goalposts in 2016 that white Memphis workers and students hit decades ago.
African Americans in Shelby County made progress in education in the decades since King was killed: 85.5 percent graduated in 2016 vs. 15.5 percent who graduated in 1970.
Completion rates for Bachelor’s degrees or higher rose from 3.9 percent in 1970 to 19.6 percent in 2016 for African Americans in Shelby County. Still, this is less than the 20.8 percent degree completion rate for whites in 1980.*
Poverty rates for African Americans in Shelby County have been inching up since 2000, despite an increase in college degree attainment. White poverty rates, meanwhile, have barely budged.
20.9 percent of African Americans in Shelby County worked in white-collar jobs in 1970 compared to 52.5 percent in 2016. Meanwhile 67.6 percent of white workers in Shelby County were already in white-collar jobs way back in 1980.*
It would appear that the incomes of African Americans in Shelby County have increased significantly, from a median household income of $5,073 in 1970 to $35,664 in 2016.
However, when adjusting for inflation, the black median household income for 1970 was the equivalent of $31,808 in 2016 dollars, which means there has been virtually no change in salaries.
The percentage of unemployed black men was 32.3 percent in 1970 and has only slightly changed, for the worse, to 35.6 percent in 2016.
The incarceration rate for African Americans in Shelby County climbed from .95 percent in 1970 to 2.7 percent in 1990.
Since 1990, the black incarceration rate has dropped to 1.67 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, the incarceration rate for white people never rose higher than 1.9 percent and today stands at 1.3 percent.
If this is what “bending towards justice” looks like, then we must forgive black families in Memphis who might demand a new definition of justice, or who may disregard it altogether.
* Data for 1970 was not available in the report