Martin Luther King Jr. and Passing the Baton

Reviving an anti-poverty crusade

2/14/2018, 9:46 a.m.
Dr. King had a dream of economic justice for all of our nation’s poor.
Marc H. Morial

“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 inalienable 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.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It is near universally known that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. For the most part, that dream is closely tied to his courageous work around racial inequality and injustice. This dream conjures up images of little black boys and girls joining hands with little white boys and girls as brothers and sisters.

But Dr. King had another dream. It was a dream of economic justice for all of our nation’s poor. Tragically cut down by an assassin’s bullet before the start of the new Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King would not live to see the launch of his dream for economic justice. Fifty years later, as the baton passes from the legacy of Dr. King to the leadership of Rev. William J. Barber II, the poor of our nation have another advocate to fight on their behalf.

Rev. Barber is no stranger to social justice movements centered on fighting for the poor and the most vulnerable. During his time as the president of the NAACP’s North Carolina chapter, Rev. Barber led “Moral Mondays” protests at the North Carolina state house. His coalition of protesters transcended race, socio-economic or ideological divides. They were united in a multi-issue struggle, mirroring the kind of coalition Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy envisioned for the Poor People’s Campaign a half century ago.

The conditions of poverty that spurred Dr. King to action in 1968 continue to motivate Dr. Barber in 2018. According to the latest census figures, more than 40 million Americans live below the federal poverty line today. During Dr. King’s time, 35 million Americans lived in poverty. While the latest job figures show that racial gaps in employment are slowly closing, yawning income inequality and the consolidation of wealth at the top of the economic food chain remain stubborn fixtures of our top-one-percent centric economy.

Dr. King spoke of “the presence of a kind of social insanity which could lead us to national ruin” in 1968. Today, we are bracing for the impact of the regressive Tax Reform law—legislation that permanently cuts taxes for corporations, but offers this relief temporarily for middle and working-class Americans. Members of Congress pushed hard to gives tax cuts and breaks to the wealthiest Americans, but have not found the same political will to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program, leaving millions of American children at risk of losing vital healthcare coverage.

Politically, our country is a far cry from the “war on poverty” declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, when the federal government’s priority was "not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it." Today, as we watch the social safety net is systematically unraveled beneath our feet, it is clear that we are fighting a targeted war on the poor.