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Martin Luther King’s Nightmare: The Inequality Behind Forbes’ Richest 400

| January 19, 2014

The view from below is not glittery. (Hamed Masoumi)

The view from below is not glittery. (Hamed Masoumi)

By Bob Lord

As we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s 85th birthday, we’ve all come to know his dream. Above all else, he dreamed that one day this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Yet here’s the grim reality facing black America today:

Bob Lord

Bob Lord

The net worth of just 400 billionaires, a group that could fit into a high school gym, is on par with the collective wealth of our more than 14 million African- American households. Both groups possess some $2 trillion, aboutthree percent of our national net worth of$77 trillion.

We chose to honor Dr. King by making his birthday a national holiday because of his tireless work for justice. And MLK stood not only for social justice, but for economic justice as well.

Back in 1951, he told his future life partner, Coretta Scott, that a small elite should not “control all the wealth.” “A society based on making all the money you can and ignoring people’s needs, is wrong,” Dr. King explained.

And the “March on Washington” was “for jobs and freedom.” At the time of his assassination in Memphis in 1968, Dr. King was standing with striking sanitation workers in their fight for economic justice.

How would MLK view the Forbes 400 controlling as much wealth as our entire African-American population of about 41 million people? Could that state of affairs co-exist with his dream?

Hardly. At the outset of that speech about his dream, the civil rights leader noted that one century after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Dr. King’s dream was as much about economic justice as it was about social justice. Today’s distribution of wealth in America represents his nightmare come true — even with Barack Obama serving as our president.

other-wordsWhat derailed the dream? How is it that, 50 years out from MLK’s speech, black America has such a dismally small slice of our nation’s wealth?

Here’s how: In the 1940s through the 1960s, U.S. economic opportunity and upward mobility outside the African-American community were the envy of the world. Back then, economic inequality was plummeting.

While discrimination kept black America mired in poverty, Dr. King watched tens of millions of other Americans climb from humble beginnings to affluence. So, he justifiably believed that if African Americans could break free from the yoke of racial discrimination, they too could share in the American Dream.

It would take a generation or two until most of them made it, but eventually they’d get there.


Soon after the chokehold of racial discrimination on the advancement of blacks finally started to loosen, however, America began its return to the society that existed before Dr. King’s birth, where a small slice of the population lives in opulence while average Americans struggle to get by.

Today, it’s not social injustice, but extreme inequality that constrains economic mobility, not just for black Americans, but all of us. America, once the land of opportunity, now has a level of economic mobility lower than that of almost all other rich countries.

By the time African Americans broke mostly (but not entirely) free from racist constraints on their economic mobility, they were whacked with a new obstacle: the almost equally suffocating injustice of extreme inequality. They’re not the only ones suffering. But because they were locked out of the egalitarian economic progress that took place during Dr. King’s lifetime, they’re disproportionately represented in the group now stuck on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

So here we are, a half-century after Dr. King described his dream, living through a nightmare where 400 ultra-rich Americans control as much wealth as our entire African-American population.

Bob Lord, a veteran tax lawyer and former congressional candidate, practices and blogs in Phoenix, Arizona. He is also an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow.

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17 Responses for “Martin Luther King’s Nightmare: The Inequality Behind Forbes’ Richest 400”

  1. fruitcake says:

    Is ” living through a nightmare” the best choice of words?

  2. Jack Stewart says:

    don’t forget the quote from al shapton ….”the black man can’t get ahead in this country ” Even though we have a black president….black head of Department of justice…black judges black congressman black senators…..the list goes on and on…..time to stop blaming white people for everything that happens to blacks…time to stand on your on two feet and be responsible for your future,

    Don’t forget Martin Luther king was a republican ……..

    • Nancy N. says:

      Ah yes, the favorite tea party and GOP way of claiming they aren’t racist shows up already – “Martin Luther King was a Republican.”

      Try learning some history before you start throwing stuff like that around. Today’s GOP and the GOP of the 1960’s are the same party in name only. In that era, the Democratic party was dominated by racist Southern conservatives opposed to civil rights, and the Republicans were the party of the northern liberals who supported civil rights. Of course MLK was a Republican in that era.

      Nowadays, of course, the exact opposite is true of the two parties, and I’m sure the modern GOP with its blatantly racist attempts to suppress the minority vote and its attempts to preserve and enhance economic inequality in favor of the 1%, would sicken Martin Luther King.

    • Out of Curiosity says:

      Republican? Not according to snopes and politifacts….

  3. Phil Chanfrau says:

    It is amazing that the 1% has dominated the 99% for so long. It has masterminded the use of prejudice, self interest and bias. Many “one issue” voters like those who passionately believe in their right to bear arms, anti-abortionists, and homophobics who insist on denying same sex marriages are persuaded to vote for politicians who are known to be funded by the rich and powerful. Those politicians have learned how to leverage prejudice to get elected.

    Witness the shift in Dixie in the 1960’s which used to be solidly democratic until the Politicians from the deep south passed Civil Rights laws, and the Voting Rights Act. The Democratic party saw an Exodus of southern white voters to the GOP. Since then the GOP has (ab)used the Religious right to get the support of evangelical christians. Isn’ it ironic how unchristian the Religious right can be to some people in the name of Christ?

    • Nancy N. says:

      I constantly find it totally stunning that so many low-income whites allow their prejudices to be used to manipulate them into voting against their own actual self-interest.

      • A.S.F. says:

        @Nancy N. says–It gives them the illusion that they will be on top some day. No better target to exert your anger and rage on than someone even more vulnerable than yourself, especially when the powers that be are so kind as to draw a big red bullseye on their backs for you.

    • Lefty Wilbury says:

      You always have something thoughtful to say.
      I’ll bet that you are a fine barrister!

  4. w.ryan says:

    Nice to know that against all odds there is a reason to go on with the struggle. The fight continues cause Jack and people like Jack don’t know Jack!

  5. Sherry Epley says:

    OK. . . once ALL citizens have EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES in the form of:

    1. EQUAL EDUCATION- No, that is not happening. . . the tax money is moving from “Public” schools to “Charter” (AKA private schools for the affluent).

    2. EQUAL JOB OPPORTUNITIES- Some “token” minorities are hired, but minorities are not really competitive for the high paying jobs because they are under educated.

    3. EQUAL JUSTICE- Not happening. . . Example Trayvon Martin

    Then we can expect all people to “stand on your two feet and be responsible for your future”.

    I could go on and on. . . but my point is, that the widening gulf between the wealthy and everyone else in our country is a statistical fact. This article accurately points out that minorities are not a large percentage of the wealthy. Our middle class is almost gone, and that situation spells disaster for any consumer based economy. Let’s do try to think beyond knee jerk prejudices that create the “us versus them” mentality and cultural attitude. Divided, we are falling!

  6. MW says:

    “Back in 1951, he told his future life partner, Coretta Scott,” I believe that she became his wife and widow and took his last name. Give her the respect she deserved and use the titles she used when she was alive and not a phrase used to describe something other than wedlock.

    • Nancy N. says:

      It is factually correct to refer to Coretta Scott King as Coretta Scott in the context of repeating a conversation that took place prior to her marriage. At the time the conversation took place her name actually was Coretta Scott.

      And please get over your hang-ups about “respect” and “titles” over labels on relationships. To turn what is nothing but a prosaic turn of phrase by the article’s author into some sort of huge issue reflects more on you than on the author.

  7. Bill says:

    I just love (not) how leftists use the term of our National wealth when talking NOT about the wealth of our National Government BUT its people. They see the wealth of the and the Indeviduial as something the GOVERNMENT owens.

    • A.S.F. says:

      I believe that many of us feel that our wonderful system of government is partially responsible for the successes we’ve achieved and we have an obligation to help others not as fortunate. I don’t know about you but I was raised to take care of my own. Sometimes fear and greed get in the way of compassion…and we forget that it might be up to others to help take care of us someday. Success has its rewards and its consequences, consequences that might come back in the form of karma.

  8. marty says:

    “Soon after the chokehold of racial discrimination on the advancement of blacks finally started to loosen, however, America began its return to the society that existed before Dr. King’s birth, where a small slice of the population lives in opulence while average Americans struggle to get by.”

    Hmm…..when might this have been? Let me think…maybe with a Presidential candidate who chose to start his campaign in the Mississippi city where civil rights workers were murdered? Who consistently used coded racial language (which has been ingrained in his party’s DNA ever since) to stoke division and resentment?

    Who made worship of the market a state religion, to the exclusion of any wider view of society?

    Thanks, Ronnie – your legacy lives on.

  9. ryan says:

    I just wish it was not considered racist to crack down on street gangs and did more to help the black kid in the hood that is trying to do something with his life, rather than helping the gangbanger kids. There seems to be a deafening silence about the kid that is murdered for not joining a gang and a media blackout of stories like it. Help the smart black kid succeed and this inequality will change.

  10. I/M/O says:

    The taxpayers of the United States have spent 9 trillion dollars in the War on Poverty” over the past 50 years.

    That equates to 90 billion dollars a year.

    Maybe the government should have invested that 90 billion each year in creating jobs?

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