WE CELEBRATE DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING’S BIRTHDAY today, and most of the press will focus on his achievements as the creator and leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement. You can count on nearly every news outlet showing footage of the “I Have A Dream” speech.
But it’s another speech I’d like to focus on.
“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?”
As a nation, and as a planet, we continue to struggle with poverty. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from December 11, 1964, King talked about the worldwide state of poverty and its effect on his own nation:
“A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist. This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves. Take my own country for example. We have developed the greatest system of production that history has ever known. We have become the richest nation in the world. Our national gross product this year will reach the astounding figure of almost 650 billion dollars. Yet, at least one-fifth of our fellow citizens – some ten million families, comprising about forty million individuals – are bound to a miserable culture of poverty.
In a sense the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment.
In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity. Glistening towers of glass and steel easily seen from their slum dwellings spring up almost overnight. Jet liners speed over their ghettoes at 600 miles an hour; satellites streak through outer space and reveal details of the moon.”
He then calls for an “all-out war on poverty,” and says
“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. Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed – not only its symptoms but its basic causes. This, too, will be a fierce struggle, but we must not be afraid to pursue the remedy no matter how formidable the task.”
His words that day were a preview of what would motivate and occupy him in the last four years of his life: anti-war campaigning for Vietnam, and economic reform.
His Poor People’s Campaign was not the triumph of the March on Washington—but imagine if it had been.
It is easy to look back on those times and wax nostalgically about activism and protest. But the fact is that many problems King confronted—war and poverty—remain and dog us today.
He would want us to continue the work he started by speaking out and organizing, and taking small steps of resistance against the forces that prevent change and reform.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It’s also the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. And the beginning of the next four years in America’s democratic process.
What can each of us do today to improve the lives of others?
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