As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we should not forget that the context of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech was primarily about economic freedom through quality jobs with good benefits that pay a living wage.
Dr. King understood, then as it is now, that income inequality binds Americans into a cycle of poverty that often becomes generational. Poverty lowers life expectancy as well as educational attainment, which is a predictor of wealth for all races.
According to a new report 2024 Race for Results by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Oklahoma had no racial or ethnic group of children ranked among the top half of states. The index score for Black children in Oklahoma ranked 30th among 46 states with available data, and American Indian/Alaska Native children in Oklahoma ranked 19th of 31 states. However, the scores for Oklahoma children in both of these categories were far lower than scores for white children in any state. And for context, the index score for white children in Oklahoma was among the nation’s lowest — 48th, just above Kentucky and West Virginia. When the data is taken together, it clearly shows the systems supporting our children are not helping all children equally.
As Dr. King said in his 1963 speech, “And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
Dr. King’s point was that without a good job that pays a living wage and provides paid time off and access to health care, our ship will sink together. Without this, it will be a race to the bottom for all children in Oklahoma. More and more people will continue to slip from the middle class and see their children and grandchildren enter into cycles of poverty without higher paying jobs in Oklahoma.
Yet, for Blacks in Oklahoma, the cycle of poverty is cemented and entrenched more than any other racial or ethnic group. While Oklahoma’s poverty rate is the eighth highest in the nation overall, 1 in every 4 Blacks live in poverty in Oklahoma.
However, that was not always the case in the former Territory we now call Oklahoma.
Long before Dr. King’s speech and even before Oklahoma’s statehood, Black people from all over the nation came to Oklahoma to build towns, raise families and create jobs.
A 2021 article in Smithsonian magazine explored the state’s historical roots as a beacon of racial progress:
In pre-statehood Oklahoma, it was common for white and black children to attend the same schools as late as 1900. Black politicians held public office not only in tribal governments but also in Oklahoma Territory, the modern-day western half of the state. In the early days of Tulsa, black residents owned businesses in the predominantly white downtown district and even had white employees.
In that era, Black leaders like real estate investor A.G.W. Sango, newspaper editor W.H. Twine, and lawyer/political leader Edward McCabe envisioned Oklahoma as a place where people of all races could pursue economic prosperity hand and hand.
Our state was built on a vision of prosperity. Yet, today, one in five residents live in poverty.
Economic oppression comes through regressive tax policies. When compared as a share of household income that goes towards state and local taxes, low-income Oklahomans pay nearly double what their wealthier counterparts do. When such policies are paired with subsidies for the wealthy, such as the private school voucher program, these policy choices spread poverty like a cancer within middle-income families.
Together, regardless of race, we must combine efforts to support economic policies like increasing the state earned income tax credit and resisting the call for tax cuts that decimate the state’s ability to provide core services for its citizens
Dr. King said it best more than 50 years ago: “…for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”
Oklahoma, we are truly all in this together.