Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the official federal holiday honoring the birthday of the civil rights leader. Race equality was his first concern, but he increasingly emphasized economic justice in his campaigns. The billions of dollars spent on the Vietnam War, he thought, had diverted attention and resources away from the millions of Americans, especially people of color, who lived their lives in poverty. Combatting entrenched systems of poverty became a major focus in the final years of King’s life. He was killed in 1968 while visiting Memphis to help rally sanitation workers on strike after years of unfair treatment.
The flaws in our society, King said in speeches and in his writings, were not superficial but systematic. In a Testament of Hope, published after his death in 1968, he said that “radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” A step in that direction was the Poor People’s Campaign, which he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized in 1967 and launched in 1968. The focus of the Poor People’s Campaign was jobs, income, and housing.
The assassination of King sapped the energy of the Poor People’s Campaign. There were some events held after his death, but the campaign largely stalled. In 2003, there was an effort in Chicago to resurrect the Campaign.
Now, more than 40 years after King’s death, we’ve spent trillions on new wars. The wealth gap is wider than ever. And, millions of Americans live in poverty.
What are you thinking today?
Do we need a renewed Poor People’s Campaign?
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Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue.