Audience members hold hands while singing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" during a Martin Luther King Day celebration Tuesday night at the East Carolina University Heart Institute. (Photos by Kathryn Kennedy)

ECU audience urged to consider unfinished work in MLK vision

Jan. 18, 2012

By Kathryn Kennedy
ECU News Services

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used strong language to demand economic justice, the eradication of poverty and improved conditions, pay and opportunities for black workers.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux encourages people celebrating King this week to look at his legacy in its entirety and to consider numerous inequities not yet overcome. King was more than a dreamer, she said.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women, speaks about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy to a group at the East Carolina University Heart Institute on Tuesday.
Malveaux, president of historically black Bennett College in Greensboro, was the featured speaker at a gathering Tuesday, Jan. 10 at the East Carolina University Heart Institute, organized by the Office of Equity, Diversity and Community Relations. About 150 community members attended. As an economist, author and commentator, Malveaux is a respected voice in the public dialogue on race, culture, gender and how their economic impacts are shaping public opinion.

King’s image is complicated, she said. Many of his stances were unpopular at the time of his death 47 years ago and his ideas continue to threaten the status quo.

“I get tired of people trying to sanitize Dr. Martin Luther King,” Malveaux said. “He talked about restructuring and this is a conversation we’re afraid to have. And that’s why wealth has become more concentrated in our nation.”

She offered data Tuesday painting a portrait of a race still struggling. Malveaux explained that the percentage of unemployed blacks is greater than whites, poverty rates remain high and a greater percentage of blacks work public sector jobs. Those have been targeted in recent years, she added.

“They want to cut the post office,” Malveaux said. “They want to cut federal, state and local employment. When you say you want to cut government – code word – ‘We want to cut black folks.’

“No one would dare report that the black unemployment rate is nearly 30 percent. Is that acceptable? The African-American community’s distress seems no crisis at all.”

With a presidential election on the horizon, Malveaux asked the audience to keep King and his lessons in mind this year. She encouraged them to adopt both his urgency and audacity.

“When we sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ I don’t say ‘someday,’” she said. “I say ‘today.’ When we say ‘someday’ and we’re talking about freedom, it suggests a lack of urgency. Dr. King, if nothing else, had a sense of urgency.”

She said that while progress has been made, conflicts based in race are now more complex.

“The question has become not can you ride the bus…but can you drive the bus? Can you own the bus company? Can you zone where the bus goes? It’s still an issue and there are racial biases in all of this. You can hide racism behind a lot of words.”

“(Dr. King) would say, ‘You’ve got work to do,’ Malveaux concluded. “The work is unfinished. Dr. King’s dream was never that one person should be in the White House, but that all people could experience economic justice.”

Malveaux signs a copy of one of her books Tuesday night for a woman who attended an event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the East Carolina University Heart Institute.

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