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.
Today Dr. King would be delighted that there are thousands of black and brown elected officials across the land and in the corridors of power in many sectors. But he would be appalled that a black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy a 1 in 6 chance; that 87 percent of black, 83 percent of Latino and 58 percent of white 4th graders cannot read at grade level. He would be outraged that 580,000 black males are serving sentences in state and federal prisons, while fewer than 40,000 black males earn a bachelor's degree each year. And he would be challenging us to root out the still-glaring and subtle racial disparities in all our child-serving systems and major institutions in America that reflect the continued vibrancy of racism in our society.
If we really care about this nation's future, we must assign ourselves the personal responsibility to be a voice for justice for children and the poor in these scary and turbulent times. We still face the threats Dr. King spoke of: war, terrorism and greed in uncertain economic times.
A lot of people are waiting for Dr. King to reappear and save us, but he's not coming back—we're it. Some people think that if we just elect a new president and Congress, every problem will be solved. A caring president and a more enlightened Congress will make a difference, but they won't bring the transforming changes our nation and the world need if we don't build the movement to push them. It took the Civil Rights Movement to make Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Congress respond.
Too many of our children are still in failing schools or living in violent neighborhoods. Their parents are working hard, but cannot bring home enough to provide them secure shelter, food and adequate care. We need a new movement to secure our future and our promises to our children. Whatever the risk, each of us must demand that our leaders listen, then act in the best interest of all our children. You and I must also do the right thing for children—right now. You and I must vote, organize and inform ourselves about how well our leaders are protecting children, and then hold them accountable.
We do not have a money problem in America; we have a profound values and priorities problem. Imagine the kind of nation and world we could build if we decided that people are more important than profit and property. How truly wonderful America would be if, as Dr. King urged, we really invested in peace rather than war. We must never give in to despair or give up. We must keep moving.
I first heard and was inspired by Dr. King in 1960, when he spoke at my alma mater, Spelman College, in Sisters Chapel. He told us to always keep moving: "If you cannot fly, drive; if you cannot drive, run; if you cannot run, walk; if you cannot walk, crawl. But keep moving. Keep moving forward." And fight with all our might those who seek to move us backwards. We must keep these words in mind to continue the fight to fulfill Dr. King's vision of a new world and beloved community for all our children.
Marian Wright Edelman is an activist for children's rights.