As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, many are discussing what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would say to the nation and world today and tell us to do. But his message to us today is as clear as it was 50 years ago if only we could hear, heed, and follow his warnings about what we need to do to make America America.
Just as biblical Old and New Testament prophets were rejected, scorned, and dishonored in their own land in their times, so was Dr. King by many when he walked and worked among us.
Now that he is dead, many Americans remember him warmly but have sanitized and trivialized his message and life.
King a disturber
They remember Dr. King the great orator but not Dr. King the disturber of unjust peace. They applaud the Dr. King who opposed violence but not the Dr. King who called for massive nonviolent demonstrations to end war and poverty in our national and world house.
They recite the “I Have a Dream” part of his August 1963 speech but ignore its main metaphor of the promissory note still bouncing at America’s bank of justice, waiting to be cashed by millions of poor and minority citizens.
And while we love to celebrate his dream and great oratorical skills, we ignore his fears and repeated warnings about America’s misguided priorities and values. He worried that we were missing God’s opportunity to become a great and just nation by sharing our enormous riches with the poor and overcoming what he called the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism.
In his last Sunday sermon at Washington National Cathedral, Dr. King retold the parable of the rich man Dives who ignored the poor and sick man Lazarus who came every day seeking crumbs from Dives’ table. Dives did nothing. Dives went to hell, Dr. King said, not because he was rich but because he did not realize his wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf separating him from his brother and allowed Lazarus to become invisible. He warned this could happen to rich America, “if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.”
Poor People’s Campaign
At Dr. King’s death in 1968 when he was calling for a Poor People’s Campaign, there were 25.4 million poor Americans, including 11 million poor children, and our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $4.13 trillion. Today, there are 46.2 million poor people, including 16.1 million poor children, almost half living in extreme poverty, and our GDP is three times larger, and shamefully the younger children are the poorer they are.
One in three Black and Latino children are poor. National wealth and income inequality are at near record levels while hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, fear, and hopelessness stalk millions of children and adults across our land who have been left behind in our economy.
Isn’t it time to ask ourselves again with urgency whether America is missing once again the great opportunity and mandate God has given us to be a beacon of hope and justice for the least among us, beginning with our children, who are the poorest Americans?
A burning house
In his last week of life, Dr. King said to a group of close friends: “We fought hard and long, and I have never doubted that we would prevail in this struggle. Already our rewards have begun to reveal themselves. Desegregation…the Voting Rights Act…But what deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.”
“What would you have us do?” one shocked friend asked. Dr. King answered: “I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.”
In our nation and world desperately hungering for moral example, change, and hope and leaders who put national and community good ahead of personal and political gain, Dr. King gave Americans a special charge: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Pursuit of peace
There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood—and sisterhood.
Fifty years later, we must not give up on building a just America that ensures a level playing field for every child and person. We must not let anyone tell us that our rich nation’s vaults of justice and opportunity are bankrupt. And we must not tolerate any longer any resistance to creating jobs, jobs, jobs which pay enough to escape poverty, public and private sector, and providing the education and early childhood development supports every human being needs to survive and thrive.
I hope we will commit ourselves on this fiftieth anniversary to building and sustaining a powerful transforming nonviolent movement to help America live up to its promises and forge the will to translate America’s dream into reality for all.
Let’s honor Dr. King and save America’s future and soul by hearing, heeding, and following our greatest American prophet.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information, go to www.childrensdefense.org.