The day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, I went out into the riot-torn Washington, D.C. streets and into schools in those neighborhoods scorched by flames to talk to the children. I went to tell them not to loot and raid, so that they would not get arrested and ruin their futures. A young black boy about 12 or 13 years old looked squarely at me and said, “Lady, what future? I ain’t got no future. I ain’t got nothing to lose.” This young boy spoke the plain truth for himself and millions like him.
Since then, I’ve spent my life trying to prove this boy wrong. I had no idea how hard it would be, for despite great progress over the past 40 years, so much peril still remains to snuff out the hopes, dreams and lives of millions of our children.
In 1968, in his last Sunday sermon at Washington National Cathedral, Dr. King retold the parable of the rich man, Dives, and the poor man, Lazarus, and reminded us that, “a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor.”
“And this could happen to America, the richest nation in the world,” he warned.
“There is nothing new about poverty,” he said. “What is new is that we now have the means and the know-how to lift every child out of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will!”
So as we mark another anniversary of Dr. King’s death, we should also remember that 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of his Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign challenged our nation to end the poverty afflicting millions of Americans of all races and confront the entrenched triple evils of racism, excessive materialism (poverty) and militarism that threaten our nation and world.
In this rich nation of ours, in 2008, there are 36.5 million Americans still living in poverty, including nearly 13 million children. There are 47 million people in America who have no health coverage, and 9.4 million of those are children.
Too many of us would rather celebrate than follow Dr. King. Some of us have enshrined Dr. King the dreamer, but have ignored Dr. King the disturber of all unjust peace. Many celebrate King the orator, but ignore his words and warnings about the need for reordering the misguided values and priorities he believed to be the seeds of America’s downfall. Many remember King the vocal opponent of violence, but not King who called for massive nonviolent civil disobedience to challenge the stockpiling of weapons of death and the wars they fuel.
We choose to ignore his warnings that the excessive materialism of the greedy deprives the needy of the basic necessities of life. And as many of us trivialize or sanitize Dr. King’s words, we would rather build a monument or name a street or school after him than build the new nation and world he called for. His greatness lay in his willingness to struggle to hear and see the truth; to not give into fear, uncertainty and despair; to continue to grow and to never lose hope, despite every discouragement from his government and even his closest friends and advisers.