Since Barack Obama's historic election to the presidency in 2008, veteran civil rights activists and historians have been asked: "What would Martin Luther King think of America's election of a black president?" Their answers are usually variations on the same theme – Dr. King would be proud. He would consider it to be one of the most, if not the most, meaningful outgrowths of the struggle for equality for which he gave his life.
But here is a better question: What would Martin Luther King think of this country's commitment to his goal of eliminating poverty in our society?In celebrating King's life, we celebrate what he stood for. In doing so, exhortations to continue striving for equality, service to one's fellow man and rededication to brotherhood are all important.
Yet King's life ended in Memphis, allied with garbage workers toiling insufferably long hours for wages so low they qualified for welfare. At the time of his death, King also was preparing for a poor people's march on Washington, organizing people from every state whose lives were mired in stagnating poverty. His aim was a massive protest in which they would present themselves as living witnesses to the plight of millions of Americans drowning in a sea of want and deprivation amid a land of plenty.
King viewed poverty and war – which drained America's resources and diverted the LBJ administration's attention from its commitment to fight poverty – as evils on par with hatred and racism. The mountaintop of which King spoke was one in which all men and women would live with dignity. He saw poverty, violence and war as ungodly impediments to that ambition.
How are we doing in realizing King's dream of eliminating poverty? Between 2000 and 2008, poverty numbers increased by 8.2 million people. In Texas, 20 percent of our children live in poverty, although most live in homes in which adults work.
Thousands of people in our state are routinely and improperly denied food stamps or made to wait inordinately and unnecessarily long periods to be qualified. Students remain in poor and failing schools where soaring dropout rates have created a pipeline to prison for urban youth. Communities of concentrated poverty – marked by economic disinvestment, geographic isolation, environmental hazards and limited access to quality health care – are all reminders that there is still work to do.
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