By Elijah Cummings

This month, as we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we also should be asking ourselves this question: “What message does Dr. King’s legacy have for the leaders of our time?”

I suspect that he would be talking about the economy — and here is why.

Nearly 50 years after Dr. King and thousands upon thousands of principled Americans took up the 1963 “March for Jobs and Freedom,” African Americans are still marching for freedom — and, especially, for jobs.

For years now, the jobless rate among African Americans has been double that among Caucasians. Now, during a sluggish recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, that painful disparity is becoming even more pronounced.

While overall unemployment declined last month, as Dr. Julianne Malveaux correctly pointed out in her recent Baltimore AFRO American commentaries, the African-American unemployment rate actually increased to 15.8 percent.

The economic forces underlying those trends are complex, but one important factor is clear. Unwarranted cutbacks in government employment and programs are attacks on the African-American middle class.

In our long march toward economic opportunity, government jobs have been the foundation for greater prosperity in Black communities. Today, as a result, one out of every five African American workers is employed in the public sector. President Obama and congressional Democrats appreciate this interconnection.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that we signed into law early in 2009 helped to preserve hundreds of thousands of government jobs for the teachers, firefighters, police officers, healthcare workers and other government employees who do so much to protect our quality of life. In 2010, however, the congressional elections brought in a new Republican House Majority with different priorities. As a result, we have experienced unrelenting attacks on public employees and determined efforts to slam the breaks on government programs that stimulate this nation’s economy.

Likewise, at the state level, working families in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states have witnessed attacks on public employees and their ability to bargain collectively for fair, living wages. The net result, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, has been that government at all levels has eliminated hundreds of thousands of jobs — more than 140,000 well-paying positions during the last year, added to 200,000 government jobs lost in 2010, and more than 500,000 since the beginning of the Recession.

These campaigns against federal, state and local government employment (and employees) are harming America’s economic recovery, and the harm to minority communities has been the most egregious. However, there may be a silver lining to be found in these devastating economic developments.

African Americans are not alone in being harmed by these attacks on government programs and employees. Working together with the rest of America’s “99 percent,” we have the political capability to realize a more equitable and sustainable economic strategy.

Gandhi once observed, “Suffering can open the human heart to understanding.” As millions of Americans have lost their jobs and their homes, more and more people are opening their hearts and minds to the substance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s economic message for this country.

We should not hesitate to remind our friends and neighbors about the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. King led — or about the reality that he was killed while trying to help Memphis sanitation workers achieve a better wage.

Dr. King argued that economic opportunity and security form the foundation for our ability to exercise and enjoy our other human rights. This, I believe, is his essential message to the political leaders of our own time.

Progressives in the Congress still believe in this vision. This is why we consistently support legislation like Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s “Emergency Jobs Act” (H.R. 2914) that would fund more than 2,200,000 jobs in education and related governmental programs during the next two fiscal years.

I am deeply gratified to be an original co-sponsor of Congresswoman Schakowsky’s bill. Yet, I also understand that our jobs proposal will become law only if the American people vote their conscience (and their pocketbooks) in this year’s upcoming elections.

Dr. King’s legacy to the America of our time calls out for constructive action to transform the “human right” to jobs that can support our families into a civil right advanced and supported by federal policy. I am convinced that we can make Dr. King’s vision of economic justice a reality.

America is not yet there — but we are still marching.

The opinions on this page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the AFRO. Send letters to The Afro-American • 145 W. Ostend Street Ste 600, Office #536, Baltimore, MD 21230 or fax to 1-877-570-9297 or e-mail to editor@afro.com

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Congressman Elijah Cummings

Special to the AFRO