Martin Luther King, Jr. and the fight for the poor
Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. No mail will be delivered and banks will be closed.
It is a day when we are called to remember Dr. King. But I wonder, how do we remember him?
Most of us remember Dr. King as a civil rights activist, who fought for the rights of African Americans to be fully recognized as citizens of the United States. We associate his name with phrases like nonviolence and "I have a dream." We remember Birmingham and Selma and the March on Washington.
But there's a part that we don't remember quite as well. When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, he was in Memphis as a part of his new initiative, the "Poor People's Campaign." After it seemed like the civil rights movement had not led to an improvement in material conditions for African Americans in the United States, Dr. King turned his focus to issues of economic injustice, a problem that was particularly pronounced in the black community, where the unemployment rate was about twice that of white Americans. His trip to Memphis in 1968 was to support the black sanitation workers in the Memphis Sanitation Strike.
Just this week, more than 50 years after the March on Washington, the Senate was unable to pass a bill that would extend unemployment benefits, which will leave about 1.3 million out-of-work people without a safety net. There is a farm bill in Congress right now that is trying to cut another $9 billion from the food stamps budget, averaging to a $90 per month cut per household from the country's poorest people. Income inequality is on the rise, and people can work full time and still not make ends meet. These are policies that directly affect the poorest among us, and disproportionately affect the black community, where the unemployment rates are still double that of their white counterparts.
This year, as we look to the legacy of Dr. King, let us keep in mind both the fights that he won as well as the battle that he had only just begun. The celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day should serve as a reminder of how far we've come, and of just how far we've yet to go.
Image: By Herman Hiller / New York World-Telegram & Sun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons