“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., American Civil Rights Activist, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” March 31, 1968
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 give 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 systematically unraveled beneath our feet, it is clear that we are fighting a targeted war on the poor.
For thousands, that fight will be fought under the banner of “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival,” led by Revs. Barber and Liz Theoharis. The agenda is “to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality” with close to five weeks of action at statehouses around our country and at our nation’s capital.
We in the Urban League Movement were privileged to engage with Rev. Barber and discuss his mission and vision first-hand when he spoke at our 2017 Conference in St. Louis. His address left us energized and inspired to continue the work of my predecessor, Whitney M. Young, who worked hand-in-hand with King and other leaders of the era as executive director of the primary civil rights organization dedicated to economic empowerment.
The work of the Poor People’s Campaign culminated with a Poor People’s March on Washington shortly after Dr. King’s assassination, and a six-week occupation of the Washington Mall by march participants and advocates. With campaign’s revival soon upon us, it is clear that the spirit of 1968 is alive and well – and its spirit has a newfound home in Washington.
I was recently honored with an invitation to discuss Dr. King’s economic justice dream at the new exhibit of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, “City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.” We stood among the relics and pictures of past but felt very connected to our struggles in the present.
Dr. King’s struggle remains our nation’s struggle, and we must continue to move towards equality and economic justice for all.