When the Son of Man comes in his glory…all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” –Matthew 25:31-36
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it. Not too many years ago, Dr. Kirtley Mather, a Harvard geologist, wrote a book entitled Enough and to Spare. He set forth the basic theme that famine is wholly unnecessary in the modern world. Today, therefore, the question on the agenda must read: Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table, when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life?”
In January 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took a very rare “sabbatical” at an isolated house in Jamaica far away from telephones and the constant pressures of his life as a very public civil rights leader to write what would become his last book: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The excerpt above could have been written yesterday. Professor Mather’s book arguing that mankind had achieved the ability to move beyond famine was published in 1944, yet in 2015, despite seventy more years of unparalleled advances in scientific and technological capability and global resources and wealth, hunger and want are still rampant – most shamefully in the United States with the world’s largest economy. Hear again Dr. King: “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will . . . The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’”
When Dr. King died in 1968 calling for a Poor People’s Campaign, there were 25.4 million poor Americans, including 11 million poor children. Today there are more than 45.3 million poor Americans, including 14.7 million poor children, living in our boastfully rich nation. The question is why we allow poverty still to exist, especially among our children who are the poorest age group of Americans, and the answer remains the same: the deficit in human will and genuine commitment to a fair playing field for all by a critical mass of leaders and citizens in our morally anemic nation. How can it be that the top one percent of Americans enjoy more of the nation’s wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined and that millions of children are hungry and homeless and poorly educated? If the qualification for individual and national greatness is genuine concern for the ‘least of these’ as those of us who are Christians say we believe, and if nations and our concurrent role as members of nations and not just as individuals are accountable, then too many of our political, corporate, and faith leaders and citizens – all of us who live in America – are failing.
The national holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birthday is over, but I hope we will heed and act on his 1967 declaration —“the time has come for an all-out world war against poverty”—and work to win the first victory right here at home in the biggest economy on earth and end the shame of 14.7 million children being the poorest Americans by ending child poverty now.
Dr. King’s voice guides us if we are willing to hear and act on it and use it as a road map for action no matter the political weather. Reflecting on the direction the struggle for civil rights and social justice should take in Where Do We Go from Here?, he shared a story about the need to commit to difficult struggles for the long haul and described a nine and a half hour flight he had taken from New York to London in an older propeller airplane. On the way home, the crew announced the return flight from London to New York would take twelve and a half hours. When the pilot came out into the cabin, Dr. King asked him why. “‘You must understand about the winds,’ he said. ‘When we leave New York, a strong tail wind is in our favor, but when we return, a strong head wind is against us.’ But he added, ‘Don’t worry. These four engines are capable of battling the winds.’”
Dr. King concluded: “In any social revolution there are times when the tail winds of triumph and fulfillment favor us, and other times when strong head winds of disappointment and setbacks beat against us relentlessly. We must not permit adverse winds to overwhelm us as we journey across life’s mighty Atlantic; we must be sustained by our engines of courage in spite of the winds. This refusal to be stopped, this ‘courage to be,’ this determination to go on ‘in spite of’ is the hallmark of any great movement.”
As I ponder the miraculous progress sparked by ordinary citizens and people of grace and courage who risked limb and life to crumble the seemingly impenetrable fortresses of Jim Crow and unjust racial segregation in our land during the Civil Rights Movement, portrayed movingly in the film Selma which I hope every American, especially young people, will see, let it inspire us to put on new shoes of courage and will now to ensure that never again will our children and grandchildren have to fight those same battles as the forces of regression seek to turn our nation’s racial and social progress backwards. African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian American youths need to be taught our history and remember that they can never take anything for granted in America – especially now as racial profiling, intolerance, and poverty resurge over our land. Some are as blatant as the disproportionate killing of Black males at the hands of law enforcement personnel entrusted to protect life, huge racial disparities in school discipline policies against Black males and children with special needs, unequal educational offerings for poor children of color, and a mass incarceration system fueled by a Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ which feeds 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 into prison. Incarceration has become the new American apartheid. Other forms of racism are more subtle, technical, and very polite. Although they may be wrapped up in new euphemisms and better etiquette, as Frederick Douglass warned, it’s still the same old snake. So, inspired by the movie Selma’s timely jogging of our collective memory about where we have come from against all odds, I hope a critical mass of citizens will rev up our engines of courage and will today and persistently and strategically combat the fierce head winds of poverty, racism, and education and economic inequality and greed that threaten to undo the progress of the last fifty years. Let’s stay true to the course Dr. King set for us and take up his last campaign to end poverty in America, beginning with our children, especially those of color, whose minds, bodies and spirits are being formed today. They cannot wait. Sign up to receive CDF’s groundbreaking new report on January 28th, Ending Child Poverty Now, and learn about the concrete actions all of us urgently need to take.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Startand a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.