In Honor of Dr. King: Exploring the Connection Between Homelessness, Employment, and Civil Rights

The cornerstone of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is his commitment to guaranteeing civil rights for African Americans. On the 50th anniversary of his death, we recall the intrinsic link between Dr. King’s commitment to social justice and a dedication to economic justice.

In his searing critique of “the three evils” of racism, poverty, and war, Dr. King demonstrated this commitment. By placing poverty at the center of his agenda, he recognized it as a fundamental violation of his principles of non-violence and expanded his mission on civil rights.

Fifty years later, this fight continues. Homelessness is the worst manifestation of the widening inequality that perpetuates poverty. Perhaps Dr. King’s boldest solution was the goal of genuine full employment: an economy where anyone who wants a job can find one. This concept is once again making headlines as policymakers and advocates examine the causes of and solutions to poverty and homelessness. Increased income and employment are key strategies in ending poverty and achieving racial and economic justice—and are critical in preventing and ending homelessness.

In the year before his death, Dr. King was the leading national advocate of full employment: his foreword to the Freedom Budget and speeches at Riverside Church and to the striking sanitation workers in Memphis all pointed to a future that sought racial and economic equality as twin necessities for achieving a just society. Coretta Scott King carried on his legacy when she marched in silence with 40,000 people (sanitation workers and other grieving activists) in Memphis just days after his assassination. Continuing the fight for economic justice, Coretta Scott King founded the National Committee for Full Employment/Full Employment Action Council, which secured passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978.

Lawmakers, researchers, and community-based organizations alike are continuing this legacy, in their fight for quality jobs for all who can work and for a basic level of economic security for those who cannot find employment or aren’t able to work.

The Full Employment Caucus in Congress continues its push for a 21st Century Humphrey-Hawkins Act and other measures to achieve widespread genuine full employment. A recent National Town Hall on Inequality in Congress highlighted a federal jobs guarantee as a solution for homelessness.

Anti-poverty and homelessness organizations, researchers, and policymakers continue to advocate policies that will achieve and maintain quality living-wage jobs for all who can work — and, in doing so, can make significant strides to preventing and ending homelessness.

Dr. King’s death cut short his personal progress on economic justice and civil rights. But many others are carrying on his and his wife’s legacy in striving for a just society. When we take steps to prevent and end homelessness through living-wage employment and a decent level of economic security for all, we make progress toward his goals.

For further reading

To learn more about current efforts to ensure full employment among all Americans, check out the following resources: