Praying With Our Feet For Economic Justice
When reflecting on his experience marching in Selma, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stated that he was “praying with my feet.” This act of transforming words and faith into action for justice and equality is a key underpinning of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as Jewish social justice – one of the many reasons why there was such a deep Jewish involvement. One of the core issues that the Reform Movement has in common with Dr. King is our mission to combat economic inequality.
Dr. King believed strongly that everyone should have access to a livable income, and he advocated passionately for equal access to jobs and economic opportunity. Although four states voted to increase the minimum wage last November, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is far too low. In 1968 (the year Dr. King was assassinated), the federal minimum wage would be worth over $10/hour in today’s dollars.
The current minimum wage engenders a cycle of income inequality, for it is near enough for anyone to live by: in no states can a minimum wage worker afford a two-bedroom apartment working a 40 hour week. Raising the minimum wage would also help improve the economy, by increasing productivity, reducing turnover, saving on recruiting/training costs, reducing absenteeism, and lifting 2 million Americans out of poverty.
Additionally, Dr. King stood for workers’ rights and Dr. King’s last march occurred when he was fighting in the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. Labor movements remain an integral part of advocating for just workplaces. Unions are organized groups of workers formed to protect and to ultimately further the workers’ rights as well as their interests. As independent employees, workers may face harassment, unsafe working conditions, and poverty-level wages. Through unions, workers can advocate that they are treated fairly in the work place: they can advocate for sufficient paychecks, adequate benefits, safety in the workplace, equal opportunities, and most importantly for respect. Workers have fundamental rights to have fair, safe, and healthy workplace environments; our Jewish tradition teaches that “you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer” (Deuteronomy 24:14).
Dr. King was also a fierce advocate for feeding the hungry. When discussing the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit Ins, Dr. King asked, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” In 1964 when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King proclaimed, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies." Yet 50 years later, hunger is still a problem for many in our society. According to 2013 data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 49 million Americans lived in a household that faced difficulty affording enough food in 2013. Additionally, 50% of U.S children will receive SNAP benefits at some point before they reach the age of 20. Hunger is still taking place on a massive scale, both in the United States and around the world. Our Jewish faith also calls on us to feed the hungry; in Isaiah 58:7, we are commanded to “share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into [our] house.”
At his final speech, which he gave at the sanitation workers’ strike, Dr. King stated, “I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land.” Dr. King saw the possibility that change could happen, and remained determined to ensure that structural inequalities were limited in our world. While Dr. King stated in the same speech that “the world is all messed up,” he only saw the world as currently being in disarray: but he did not see these problems as permanent concerns that need to be fixed. As people of faith, we could become the change that we wished to see in the world.
“We are determined to be people,” Dr. King proclaimed to workers in Memphis during this final speech. It is our responsibility, in his legacy, to create a world in which everyone can live as such. Our Jewish tradition, like King’s words, also stresses the importance of working to alleviate the impact of poverty.
As we remember the legacy of Dr. King, we cannot forget the major economic inequality that we face in our society.
Check out the Religious Action Center’s economic justice page to learn more about how you can take action. Find more resources and materials regarding Dr. King and MLK Day on the RAC's Shabbat Tzedek page.