More than a half century after his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is known as the historic figure who, with impassioned and unassailable arguments, played a pivotal role in getting America moving toward realizing its creed of equal rights for all citizens, regardless of color.
Less well known, though, was his parallel and equally ardent call for economic justice for blacks and other minorities.
On Monday, the national holiday celebrating King’s life and how he altered the course of American history, a group comprising entrepreneurs, officials and community members met at a Newark church to discuss that very issue: How much progress has been made in 50-some years on King’s call for economic parity for all Americans?
“Why are there 40 million poor people in America?” asked Randal Pinkett, a co-founder of BCT Partners, a firm that consults on issues of diversity in government and business. “And when you begin to ask that question, you’re asking a question about the economic system and a broader distribution of wealth.”
Others said the statistics present a mixed picture.
“Since 2017, black Americans have seen the fastest growth in entrepreneurial activity compared to other groups, with 20% of black Americans taking steps to start or run a new business, compared to 12% of white Americans,” said Steven Van Kuiken, senior partner at McKinsey & Company, a management consultant firm. “However, black-owned businesses do not succeed at the same rate. Only 4% of black Americans run businesses that have been established more than three years with paid employees, while 9% of white Americans do.”
Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat with a self-described progressive agenda, has established economic justice as a goal of his administration and has made it a focus of diverse initiatives in environmental and criminal justice arenas, as well as labor and economic policy.
Hester Agudosi was among those in attendance at the Newark event. In the opening months of his administration, Murphy named the veteran of state government as the New Jersey’s first chief diversity officer, as part of a new Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Her mission, in part, is to ensure diversity in appointments and recruitment for government positions and to bolster the utilization of businesses owned by minorities, women and others in public contracts.
Just last week, Murphy promised in his State of the State message to put together another in a series of task forces he has formed, this one focused on wealth disparity in New Jersey.
“These disparities have deep roots and complex causes. Overcoming them will require us to leave behind old ways of thinking so we can ensure no resident gets left behind,” he said.
“So, I am creating a new task force — government officials, academic researchers, and faith and community leaders — with the specific charge to address wealth disparity from all angles and all causes,” he added. “Their work will better inform our work in closing these gaps, and ensure that the communities which have historically been left behind can help us lead.”
On Monday, at an event nearby in Elizabeth, Murphy came face-to-face with lingering frustrations.
With the governor sitting directly behind her, Elizabeth Councilwoman Patricia Perkins Auguste launched an angry tirade against the Port Authority and its hiring practices, pointing to new terminals under construction at Newark Liberty International Airport, and demanded the bi-state agency award construction jobs to local residents.
“Governor, seriously, we need to do something about that Port Authority,” she said. “I’m not talking about doing another study and doing all that silly stuff. We did that for 200 years, we been studying, studying, studying — what? Give the jobs, stop playing.”
In his remarks afterward, Murphy did not respond specifically, but again referenced the creation of the task force.
“We are taking this one step further in bringing together a task force of experts to finally address the root causes of wealth disparity, to make New Jersey truly stronger and fairer for all,” he said.
The Port Authority said it had no comment Monday.
Back at the event in Newark, at the Metropolitan Baptist Church, at least one speaker said people of color need to depend on themselves to ensure they make progress.
“It starts with an acknowledgement and then the accountability. So as blacks in America, we spend $1.4 trillion,” said John Harmon, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey. “But here’s the rub — this is where the amens may go down a little bit — black business only generates about $200 billion. So we have a $1.2 trillion deficit in our own community.”
His comments hit a chord with many in the room.
“It’s easy to throw stones at the other folks — Republicans, white people and others — but we have to acknowledge what are doing amongst ourselves?” he said. “Is there an amen in the room for that?”
There were many.
One participant asked what King would make of the current situation in places like inner cities like Newark. The consensus was that, while he would acknowledge that some progress has been made, he’d also say there’s a long way to go before the playing field is even.
Senior Correspondent Brenda Flanagan contributed to this report.