The United States economy “has never worked fairly for Black Americans — or, really, for any American of colour”, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a speech delivered Monday, one of many by national leaders acknowledging unmet needs for racial equality on Martin Luther King Day.
Major events for the holiday also included the annual Martin Luther King Jr service at the slain civil rights leader’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where the senior pastor, US Senator Raphael Warnock, was hosting Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and other politicians. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and members of King’s family were offering remarks in Washington, DC.
Monday would have been the 93rd birthday of Reverend King, who was just 39 when he was assassinated in 1968 while helping sanitation workers strike for better pay and workplace safety in Memphis, Tennessee.
King, who delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech while leading the 1963 March on Washington and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, considered racial equality inseparable from alleviating poverty and stopping war. His insistence on non-violent protest continues to influence activists pushing for civil rights and social change.
Yellen referred to King’s famous speech in remarks she recorded for delivery at the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network breakfast in Washington, noting the financial metaphor he used when describing the founding fathers’ promises of equality.
King said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that “America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned.” He called it ”a bad cheque, a cheque which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt!”
“It is compelling rhetoric, but I also think Dr King knew it was more than a metaphor. He knew that economic injustice was bound up in the larger injustice he fought against. From Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the present day, our economy has never worked fairly for Black Americans – or, really, for any American of colour,” Yellen said.
She said the Biden administration has sought to ensure that no economic institution fails to work for people of colour. Equity was built into the American Rescue Plan so that communities of colour would get coronavirus pandemic relief, and the Treasury is injecting $9bn into community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and minority depository institutions (MDIs) traditionally poorly served by the financial sector.
“There is still much more work Treasury needs to do to narrow the racial wealth divide,” she said.
The King Center said the 10am (15:00 GMT) service, featuring a keynote address by the Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, would be broadcast live on Atlanta’s Fox TV affiliate and on Facebook, YouTube and thekingcenter.org. Atlanta’s planned events also included a march, a rally and a voter registration drive by the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and Youth Service America.
“On this King Holiday, I call us up to shift our priorities to reflect a commitment to true peace and an awareness of our interconnectedness, interdependence, and interrelatedness,” King Center CEO Bernice King said in a statement. “This will lead us to a greater understanding of our responsibilities to and for each other, which is crucial for learning to live together, achieving ‘true peace,’ and creating the Beloved Community.”