Honoring Dr. King's life and legacy

08 Apr, 23

Dear Friends,

This week marks 55 years since the tragic day that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His assassination unleashed a clarion cry for justice and spurred the passage of the Fair Housing Act, which aimed to end housing segregation. It was the last landmark legislation out of the civil rights movement.

Today, his call to action in the last speech he gave to make “America what it ought to be” has not been fully answered. This is still the reality in Harris County, which has growing wealth and income inequality despite our region’s vast prosperity. We are determined to pick up the torch and continue Dr. King’s fight for economic prosperity.

In the last years of his life, Dr. King turned his attention to ending economic injustice. He understood that prosperity, freedom, and the true promise of this nation would remain elusive if millions of people were bound by poverty and shut off from economic opportunity. He saw how inequality divided our country along the fault lines of race, class, and gender to create not one but two Americas. One America, Dr. King told us, was “overflowing with the miracle of prosperity and the honey of opportunity.” But across the nation, from the big cities to rural communities, Dr. King saw the “Other America” where people were “perishing on a lonely island of poverty, in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Building on the hard-won civil rights victories, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. It was a multiracial coalition that called on the government to address the problem of poverty, make right the wrongs of economic injustice, and make real the nation’s promise of freedom and prosperity for all people. It was a visionary campaign that spoke a plain truth: To live a prosperous and dignified life, people need a safe roof over their heads, an income floor to support basic needs, access to good jobs that pay a living wage, and real opportunities to reach for their version of the American dream.

It was the Poor People’s Campaign that brought Dr. King to Memphis to support 1,300 Black sanitation workers on strike for better wages, safer working conditions, and union recognition. And it was there that his life was brutally ended by an assassin in 1968. Still, so much work remains to be done.

Just as Dr. King saw two Americas, today we can see two Harris Counties. Families living across the economic divide in the “Other Harris County” stretch every dollar but still can’t make ends meet. No one should have to choose between paying rent, keeping the lights on, or putting food on the table. But that’s a reality every day for too many people in Harris County who face rising costs, stagnant wages, and gender pay gaps, especially for women of color. One in five children lives in poverty. Families struggle to get by without a fair shot at getting ahead.

Our region is also one of the most economically segregated areas in the country. Seventeen percent of Harris County’s ZIP Codes are considered economically distressed, with predominantly Black and Latino communities living in neighborhoods that have experienced decades of neglect, discrimination, and disinvestment. As a result, people in those communities experience shorter life expectancies, greater health challenges, a lack of access to basic resources, and increased vulnerability to disasters.

In Harris County, we are proud to share that Commissioners Court is taking bold action to bridge the economic divide and create paths to prosperity by establishing the Department of Economic Equity and Opportunity. We are also advancing fair and affordable housing policies; investing in innovative apprenticeships and job programs; leading the fight for living wages and safe workplaces; and supporting small businesses, entrepreneurs, and companies owned by people of color and women. We’re also expanding critical access to affordable, quality childcare for families living in childcare deserts.

More must be done to make Harris County a stronger, safer, and more vibrant place for all to call home. We must continue confronting economic inequality through strategic and equitable policies that help families meet basic needs; reduce poverty and address its harms; foster inclusive economic growth in communities where it’s needed most; and remove unfair barriers to opportunity and prosperity.

More than half a century later, it’s past time to realize the vision he glimpsed from the mountaintop. Harris County must come together to ensure everyone in every community has the freedom and opportunity to live a good life, pursue the American dream, and prosper alongside one another as neighbors and equals


Rodney Ellis