On Martin Luther King Day: giving ourselves to the struggle

by Todd Huffman, M.D.
The Free Press, January 7, 2006

Next (Ed: This) Monday the mail will stop, the banks will close, and schoolchildren will delight in an extra long weekend all in honor of Martin Luther King, a man whose legacy the lessons of which Americans seem slowly to be forgetting.

Network news programs will show footage of King “the slain civil rights leader” telling the world from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 of his dream of racial harmony. Viewers will be reminded of King the great and nonviolent warrior fighting Bible in one hand and Constitution in the other against desegregation and for voting rights in Jim Crow Alabama. And the obligatory sixty-second homage to this great man on his national day will conclude with the familiar images of King lying dead on a motel balcony in Memphis.

What will be missing is any reference to the final three years of his too short life. After gaining passage of federal civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King spent his last years fighting his most uphill battle, against the nation’s indifference to poverty. That today such indifference persists undeterred by decades of soaring affluence is proof, if any were needed, that King went home to God many years too soon.

Not content to rest on his laurels after having been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 1963 and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, King hoped to spend his moral capital challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. He considered his successes in securing civil rights for blacks incomplete, maintaining that civil rights laws meant little without “human rights”, which included economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were useless.

King decried a society and a government that would allow huge and growing gaps between the income of its richest and its poorest citizens, a majority of whom in America were white, as he was quick to point out. “True compassion,” he declared, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

As we honor him this and every year we would do best to remember most about King what it was he was fighting for at his untimely death: nothing less than the end of stupid poverty in America and across the globe. “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age”, King wrote in his last book, published in 1967.

In his final months, King was organizing the most ambitious project of his life: the Poor People’s Campaign. King’s trip to Memphis to lend his support to the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was but an interruption in his tireless travels across the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington to demand Congress enact a poor people’s bill of rights. The assassin’s bullet abruptly ended a campaign meant to become a megaphone to rouse an indifferent Congress and nation with the collective voice of America’s huge number of poor and downtrodden.

Thirty-eight years later that megaphone is missed more than ever. America today desperately needs roused to the embarrassment that nearly thirteen percent of our population, or about 37 million Americans, live in poverty, and that thirteen million of the poor are children. Many millions more of us are living on the rim of poverty, one instance of bad luck away from falling in.

“There is nothing new about poverty?, King said in his Nobel acceptance speech. “What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.? In a nation blessed with riches and possibilities far beyond anything imagined by our ancestors, widespread poverty is a tragedy that our great wealth makes a sin.

To do justice to a holiday that honors not just a man, but a man’s fight against injustice, we each one of us must strive to see and then work to build the promised land King saw: a society fit for everybody to live in. While he somehow knew he might not get there with us, we have, as King said in his final speech, delivered on the eve of his death, got to give ourselves to this struggle to the end.

Want to do more?:

*Sign on to the ONE campaign to Make Poverty History, at http://www.one.org.
*Donate to Care USA, “Where The End Of Poverty Begins”, at http://www.careusa.org.
*Learn more about poverty in America, at http://www.povertyusa.org
*Read Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s hauntingly personal look into the everyday lives of the working poor
*Read The End Of Poverty, by Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, with Forward by Bono
*Read I Have A Dream: Writings & Speeches That Changed The World, with Forward by Coretta Scott King

Tags: Bible, Civil Rights, Giving, God, Honor, Lessons, Martin Luther King, Nonviolent, Service, Struggle

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