By Lonnie Bean, Fellow, Immediate Office of the Assistant Secretary
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington for jobs and freedom. The rally represented a watershed moment in the fight against Jim Crow and the virtual slave like conditions that blacks lived in since the Civil War. African Americans, along with all of America, have come a long way since that August day in 1963. A year later, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We now have black lawyers, doctors, professors, judges, and even the first African American President of the United States. Despite this tremendous progress, modern day slavery continues to exist in the United States and around the world in the form of human trafficking. And so, 50 years later, it is important that a new generation of Americans continues the fight against modern slavery and marches on down the long road to freedom.
Although the Civil War ended in 1865 and the Emancipation Proclamation was signed over 150 years ago, the fight to end slavery is far from over. Modern day slavery might not look like the slavery of the antebellum South, but human trafficking is having a devastating effect on communities across America and around the globe. There are more people enslaved today than at any point in history, and we still have a long road to march before we achieve freedom and equality for all. Sadly, available data shows that slavery hits those most oppressed the hardest. Studies have shown that there is a distinct correlation between poverty and human trafficking. And because race is so closely correlated with poverty in this country, women and children of color are at significant risk of becoming victims of trafficking. Although African Americans only make up about 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, Department of Justice sex trafficking prosecutions in 2011 revealed that 40 percent of the victims were black. When accounting for Hispanics, Asians, and races other than whites, women of color accounted for nearly 75 percent of victims of sex trafficking. On the labor trafficking side, people of color accounted for about 98 percent of the victims.
Although Dr. King is remembered mainly for his civil rights work on behalf of the African American community, he also championed freedom and economic justice for poor Americans of all races. Given the fact that human trafficking is pervasive in American society, however, we have to ask ourselves if we are really living up to the ideals that Dr. King thought America could achieve. If he were looking at America today, he would likely applaud the distance we have gone, but say that we still have a long road to travel before we reach that promised land. Dr. King would no doubt be concerned about any instance of modern day slavery, but he would be especially concerned with the fact that the most vulnerable amongst us continue to be the most victimized. And that is something that we as all Americans should be concerned about today. It is imperative that we begin to look at modern day slavery and Human Trafficking as our problem, and not a problem of the poor or the “other.” It is imperative that we create an America where all people are safe from human trafficking, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status.
Under the leadership of President Obama, the federal government is doing its part to fight human trafficking of all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. In September of 2012, President Obama gave a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative in which he announced a number of new initiatives to combat trafficking both at home and abroad. The four elements of the strategy included prevention, prosecution, protection, and partnering. The administration is also working on releasing a five-year strategic action plan to coordinate and strengthen services for trafficking victims in the United States. At the agency level, ACF is currently working on releasing guidance on child trafficking to child welfare workers and runaway and homeless youth programs to aid in increasing victim identification and strengthening services.
It has been 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed, “I have a dream.” And although Dr. King’s life was cut short, his dream still lives on. I share Dr. King’s dream of an America and a world where no man, woman or child is enslaved. Today, I challenge you to do your part in moving the world one step closer to that dream.
To learn more, seek help, or report tips, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-3737-888 or text BEFREE.