With the economy slipping into recession and more than 160,000 American fighting men and women in Iraq combat zones and no end to the war in sight, these are trying times for our nation. Unemployment, underemployment and poverty are afflicting more and more American families who face rising costs for food, health care, gas, heating oil and other expenses. Working families have been hit hard by the skyrocketing costs of sending their children to college and the subprime mortgage crisis while the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer. Almost 13 million children are poor, with 5.6 million living in extreme poverty. Since 2000, child poverty has increased by 10.7 percent. Currently 9.4 million children lack health insurance; nearly 90 percent of them live in working families. Over the past two years the number of uninsured children has increased by more than one million.
As we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of his Poor People’s Campaign for which I was privileged to serve as counsel and Congressional liaison, it’s instructive to look back at what Dr. King has to tell us. In his sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968, the Sunday before his assassination, he warned us again of the triple threats of racism, excessive materialism and militarism, and called on our rich nation to end poverty.
He told the story of the rich man Dives and the poor man Lazarus and said Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; he went to hell because he refused to see and help Lazarus. Dr. King feared America might make the same mistake and said our wealth could be our salvation or our downfall. He said the U.S. had the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is if we have the will.
“This,” he said, “is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots…. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
“In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor Peoples Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect….”
“We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists….”
“And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.”
“We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for Black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically, in terms of direct action.”
Dr. King’s position on the Vietnam War was profoundly prophetic if one just substitutes “Iraq” for “Vietnam.” He warned that the U.S. would continue to have “Vietnams” unless we confronted our deeply ingrained militarism. This is a time when many of our sons and daughters and husbands and wives are bogged down in a military quagmire in Iraq, and recruits aged 17 and up are currently given bonuses of thousands of dollars to enlist in the Army, many of whom are having a hard time finding employment in today’s economy. Dr. King makes us mindful of the misguided priorities of a nation whose poor children are being sent to war and its poor children of color to prison rather than to college and good paying jobs at home. With the amount we spent in Iraq last year, all children and pregnant women could be provided with access to comprehensive health coverage and every poor child in America could be lifted out of poverty, and we would still have $65 billion left over.
Just as he decried how the Vietnam War “has played havoc with our domestic destinies” including the need to eradicate poverty in 1968, so the Iraq war is stealing from our children and families the health care, education, housing and food they need to survive and thrive now.
“We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world,” Dr. King said 40 years ago. These words ring true today.
So many of us love to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. It is time to follow him. We ignore his truths at individual and national peril.
For more information about the Children’s Defense Fund, visit: staging.childrensdefense.org.