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Star-Advertiser Column: Hawaii’s Low Wages Thwart King’s Goals

While most known for his work on desegregation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent the last years of his life fighting for economic justice. He realized that racial freedoms mean nothing if people are unable to afford their basic needs.

“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

In the immediate years leading up to his assassination, Dr. King organized the Poor People’s Campaign to draw attention to the extreme levels of poverty afflicting all races within this nation of abundance. The campaign fought to ensure all Americans have access to affordable food and shelter as a basic human right.

“We fought here and all over from Selma right through the black belt of Alabama to get the right to vote. Now we are going to get the right to have three square meals a day. Now we are going to get the right to have a decent house to live in.”

As we reflect on the 50 year anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, it’s necessary that we examine the progress made on the full scope of reforms for which Dr. King gave his life to achieve. During his last year of life, the poverty rate in the United States was 13%, and although our economy has more than doubled since then, the poverty rate has actually increased to 14%.

Along with those living in poverty in Hawaii, a total of 48% of households are unable to afford their basic needs. This, while unemployment rates are at historical lows. That can only mean that local residents can find jobs, but their wages are nowhere near high enough for them to make ends meet.

In the last month before he died, Dr. King rallied with and spoke to Memphis sanitation workers who were striking for higher wages. He made it very clear where he stood on the issue of wages that are below what’s needed to survive.

“You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

It’s sad to see that the cause this revered figure was fighting for has gone unaddressed by the Hawaii legislature. Our legal minimum wage is less than two thirds of what is needed to survive, which has resulted in more than 40% of jobs in the state paying starvation wages.

Hawaii showed support for King’s desegregation efforts when Reverend Abraham Akaka, brother of Senator Daniel Akaka, attended the 1963 March on Washington and then sent lei for Dr. King and other activists to wear during the 1965 Selma march for voting rights. Unfortunately, Hawaii has not supported his fight for economic justice.

Living Wage Hawaii is pushing to secure a future where all full-time Hawaii workers can afford their basic needs. They are holding a rally to show support for raising the minimum wage to a livable standard. You can join the effort at Kapiolani Park at noon on Saturday, April 14th.

They are also compiling a list of local legislators and candidates who support this cause to keep voters informed for the upcoming elections in August and November. Those wishing to stay involved and help end these starvation wages can sign up on the website at


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