KIRON K. SKINNER
Limited government, property rights, equality under the law, natural law, individual rights, and democracy constitute the American Creed — the basis upon which the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution, and the state constitutions were written. It is the Creed, not the founding documents or the political institutions that have emerged from them, that is this nation’s promissory note.
The enduring political relevance and intellectual power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 28, 1963, speech on the National Mall is that he made his appeal to the nation about the condition of the American Negro on the basis of the Creed. He did not utter a word about Congress, the courts, or the presidency. He spoke instead about “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” and invoked “the promises of democracy.”
Political institutions can be brought in line with the American Creed, but if not closely watched they take on their own purpose. Laws that reflect American ideals can be amended by a strategic politician with a different agenda.
The great tragedy of contemporary America is that many African Americans have been misled by the notion that political institutions hold the key to safety and prosperity. While the federal government has instituted landmark legislation, executive orders, and judicial decrees that have made political institutions more responsive to American values, the promise offered by American political thought is often ignored.
The Creed is much sturdier than the institutions through which it is expressed because it is the reason this nation came into existence. It is the clarion call to the millions who seek refuge here from oppression in other countries. It is the basis upon which Americans who otherwise disagree vote together and change the nation. For me, that’s the legacy of Dr. King’s speech.
— Kiron K. Skinner is the director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for International Relations and Politics and is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Deforest B. Soaries Jr.
Fifty years after the famous 1963 March on Washington, I have a dream that Americans will increase their financial capacity by changing their relationship with money.
It is true that some of the racist attitudes of the past still linger despite the significant progress that has been made. But those attitudes no longer represent the primary barrier that prevents low-income and African-American people from advancing. Like the rest of our culture, the groups at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are being consumed by consumption and find themselves drowning in consumer debt, living above their economic means, and patronizing nontraditional financial services including check-cashing stores, gold-for-cash shops, auto-title loan schemes, and payday loans. Our national passion to consume and our cultural reluctance to budget and save represent real threats to our ever achieving the kind of economic progress that Dr. King envisioned. In his last speech, on April 3, 1968, he urged his listeners to open bank accounts in the African-American bank in Memphis. Today, 21 percent of African Americans have no bank account, and 33 percent have a bank account but still use expensive nontraditional financial services. When 54 percent of African Americans are what the FDIC calls “unbanked” and “underbanked,” there is a crisis that defies traditional solutions offered by civil-rights perspectives.
Our global economic crisis of the past five years was made possible by the gasoline of corporate greed being thrown on the fire of inappropriate desire and willingness to borrow money by too many people. We have more credit cards than we have people in this country and the average American family has more credit-card debt than savings. And this epidemic of “buy now, pay later” that has seized our culture has made millions of low-income people vulnerable to the most pernicious predatory schemes we have ever seen.
The payday-loan industry, for instance, provides short-term, high-cost loans to approximately 33,000 people every day. In the State of Ohio, these loans have published interest rates of 700 to 800 percent. Although payday-loan stores are a recent development, since 1990 more payday-loan stores are now in existence than McDonalds and Starbucks combined. It has been documented that such borrowing becomes a debt trap for millions of people who have difficulty ever repaying their original loan, and they contribute to a financial plunge into economic disaster for millions of borrowers. These products are marketed primarily to low-wage earners — exactly the kind of workers that Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis to support when he was killed.
My dream is to educate people about the dangers of payday-loan products, advocate for government regulation of such products, and work toward creating low-cost alternatives for people who need access to credit and are not being served by commercial banks. As long as America embraces this kind of reverse Robin Hood enterprise in which the rich are able to benefit from the victimization of the poor of all races, Dr. King’s dream will never be realized.
— DeForest B. Soaries Jr. is the author of dfree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery.
Hans von Spakovsky
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. focused his attention on the official, unofficial, and legal barriers preventing black Americans from achieving their full potential as American citizens. From discrimination in employment to barriers that kept them from registering and voting, from separate and unequal education to prohibitions that kept them out of restaurants and hotels, black Americans were not treated equally under the law as they had every right to be.
All of those barriers have been destroyed. Black Americans have the ability to register, vote, and run for office; to work anywhere; to eat in every restaurant and stay in every hotel in America; to get a seat on any train, airplane, or other mode of public transportation. They can be elected president and be appointed as attorney general or to a seat on the Supreme Court, or make a fortune in Hollywood or in business. They are protected from discrimination in the rare instances when it does still occur by a host of local, state, and federal laws that prohibit and ban such behavior (though we have twisted the original objectives of the civil-rights movement by today allowing some discrimination to continue, such as college-admissions policies that favor one race of students over another).
But the black family seems in worse shape today than during some of the worst times of the civil-rights movement. The rates of poverty, drug use, unemployment, broken families, rampant criminality, children born out of wedlock, and dependency on government have soared. That is the biggest problem in the black community today, not sanctioned discrimination as it existed 50 years ago.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would be appalled at what has happened to the black family, even as the legal barriers that prevented black Americans from enjoying their full rights as Americans disappeared. And I have no doubt that he would be trying to correct that problem and reverse a dangerous decline that threatens the well-being of a community he gave his life to free.
— Hans von Spakovsky is manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative and a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.