Dr. King went to Memphis to campaign for economic justice. This was an evolutionary step from struggles simply to be recognized as humans, with equal legal rights, and to be free of legally enforced segregation. Memphis was hiring both Black and White garbage workers - to that extent, the city had “integrated.”
But Black and White garbagemen had different work rules and different pay scales. Black garbagemen were paid less that White ones, and had longer work hours. Decades of experience convinced many civil rights workers that merely ending either de-facto or de-jure segregation was not enough. A Black man or woman doing the same work as a White worker in an “integrated” workplace, but getting paid only a fraction of what White co-workers were paid for identical work, continued patterns and symbolisms of segregation even as employers claimed credit for “integrating” the workforce.
So Dr. King learned from his integration work and from the new phenomenon of almost instant press coverage of our increasingly violent colonial war to preserve Michelin Corporation’s control of rubber plantations in Vietnam. He learned, and he went to Memphis to address economic injustice. And there he was murdered for his efforts.
Dr. King’s shift in focus should remind us that there are important differences between rights and justice. And Dr. King’s murder should remind us that economic justice is always a greater threat to monied interests than demands for mere human rights. Those trying to preserve their own economic wealth by keeping the masses economically depressed work hard to fabricate and publicize artificial distinctions, and claims that economic justice is not possible in a society that grants most people economic freedom.
Dr. King’s murder should remind us that economic justice is always a greater threat to monied interests than demands for mere human rights.
More than a century before the American Revolution, those who wielded political and economic power sought to forestall demands for economic justice by fabricating legal distinctions between the rights of White indentured servants from England and Black people kidnapped from Africa and brought to labor in the American colonies. Unpaid labor as an indentured White servant is better than unpaid labor as a Black piece of property, they claimed.
While economic injustice can be seen as oppressive to groups of people, its daily impact is on individuals. Poor and minority neighborhoods suffer because the powers that be are free to exploit individual needs of people who are less likely to object, to speak out, to assert their on rights. On April 4, I fell on a tile floor that had been laid over a concrete slab. On impact my right femur, the largest bone in the body fractured.
Paramedics came, dosed me with morphine and stabilized the leg which was at an unnatural angle. Then started month-long lesson in economic injustice. When I told the private ambulance crew to take me to Santa Monica Hospital, where my regular UCLA Med Net doctors practice, they told me that they were required to take me to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.
In my second day at Centinela, my broken femur was operated on, with a rod inserted the length of the bone to stabilize it while the bone sections knit themselves back together - a process that could take more than a year, at my age, according to the doctors. In the first days after the surgery I developed bed sores on my backside. This was due to the nursing staff not turning me in my bed for days after the surgery. While I complained about increasing pain, not where the surgery was, I was repeatedly told that this was normal, when coming out of general anaesthesia.
For a few days, I was kept dosed up on morphine, and didn’t mind that at all, especially at the end of a dose when it started to wear off and the pain started to return. On the third or fourth day, a nurse told me that I had a choice of three pain killers, of increasing strength. I was allowed to choose my own medication level. But when I chose to try the least powerful, non-opioid medication, the nurse returned to tell me that the only stock they had of that medication was past its expiration date, so I would have to choose one of the opioid pain killers.
Surgical recovery takes about a week, before a patient is ready to begin rehab therapy. So as soon as I got out from under the anaesthesia, I contacted my regular, UCLA doctors, and a UCLA-affiliated surgical rehab facility. They had open space and were ready to take me on as a patient. But before I could get transferred, I was informed that a Centinela official had told both Medicare and the UCLA facility that I had withdrawn my request to go to the UCLA facility, in favor of staying at Centinela and transferring to its rehab unit. So my space at UCLA went to some other patient and I was bodily moved to the Centinela rehab facility. I had, in fact, never withdrawn my request.
Centinela’s rehab unit inspects incoming patients. Although I had been vaccinated against Covid-45 back in February and March, I was given the nasal swab test. And a body inspection led to the rehab nurses asking, “How did you get these open, draining bed sores on your backside?” I replied that they had been caused by Centinela’s failure to rotate me post-surgery. The nurses acknowledged that this is a standard problem for Centinela post-surgery patients.
I spent three weeks in the Centinela. They told me, at the end of April, that my insurance was running out, and I would be discharged on Saturday, May 1. On Wednesday, April 28, a “wound care specialist” came to examine my surgical scars and my still open, draining bed sores. She prescribed treatment for the bed sores, to be followed by surgical intervention on Monday, May 3, followed by a few days of observation, to ensure against infection.
The “wound care specialist” had not been informed of the plan to discharge me when my insurance expired. So on Friday, April 30, she returned with a Centinela manager, and informed me that her Wednesday diagnosis had been wrong, and that I would be discharged, rather than have the bed sores treated.
Centinela Hospital is different from UCLA. It is in the heart of L.A.’s impoverished Black community. It is a for-profit hospital. It lives on what it can bill Medicare and other government agencies. I wasn’t turned in my bed post-surgery because Centinela trims nursing staff to the bare minimun necessary, or less, so there were simply no nurses available to do that medically necessary work.
Throughout my stay at Centinela this pattern held. Pain medications were out of date. Surgical dressings were out of stock and nurses had to improvise with other materials. Rehab appointments were scheduled without breaks between them, so therapists had to cut corners on each session to be ready for their next patient.
This is the norm for the poor, Black community surrounding Centinela. It is not what people on the West Side, or in the San Gabriel Valley or any well-to-do neighborhood get. This is economic injustice as it hurts real people, not just in theory. People with diet and environmentally caused health problems are then preyed upon by for-profit corporations who rake in huge government dollars, for providing cut-rate, sometimes shoddy care.
Centinela discharged me on May 1. The nurse prepping me to leave consistently contradicted the instructions I had received from OT and PT therapists. She wasn’t familiar with my doctor’s orders. But she was polite and friendly. When I asked, she said, forthrightly, that she had never worked on a rehab unit or received any rehab training. Her normal assignment was “telemedicine support.” But the rehab unit was short staffed so she had been reassigned.
I went back to the Westside and to my familiar, long-term UCLA medical professionals. Other patients, when their government benefits run out, get tossed out to their minimum wage, sometimes physically demanding jobs, whether they are ready or not.
When people talk about healthcare, it is important to remember that healthcare is a matter of economic justice. Even as my femur continues to knit and heal, I am able to write and voice my opinions. But what of the minimum wage patient injured on a strenuous job who cannot yet return to work, but is discharged anyway, because all the potential profit has been squeezed out of her care?
If Centinela will mistreat me—White, male, educated, outspoken, midde class—what hope can an impoverished, Black person have? Dr. King went to Memphis to work to improve the economic justice for those who were discriminated against. More than 40 years later, that economic injustice still reigns supreme in our healthcare, despite Obama’s great achievement in expanding care.
And the injustice which Dr. King wanted to work against is now spreading to the middle class as it is being decimated by policies that push ever more corporate profit up to the top tiny fraction of people in our society. That top tiny fraction will never change the system. It is up to each person who wants reforms to work for them, to carry on the work Dr. King was doing when he was murdered. Without change, each of us is being slowly murdered by the economic devastation of economic injustice. We can all be integrated in our suffering.