Martin Luther King, Jr. on Poverty

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ALEXANDRIA, Virginia – This Monday marked a federal holiday that commemorates the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the pastor and activist who played a leading role in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Apart from fighting segregation and discrimination against African Americans, King also dreamed about putting an end to poverty for everyone.

According to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change – a nonprofit organization formed by Coretta Scott King, the wife of King from 1953 until his assassination in 1968 – poverty, racism and militarism are the “Triple Evils” that “stand as barriers to our living in the Beloved Community.” King described the Beloved Community as a peacefully coexisting world that can be acquired once the masses commit themselves to learn and understand the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.

King’s ability to lead protests without resorting to violence eventually led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1964, one day after receiving the award at the University of Oslo, he delivered a lecture titled, “The Quest for Peace and Justice” in the same auditorium. It turned out that King had a lot to say about poverty.

“This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves,” said King. Later in the lecture, he said that rich nations have the moral obligation to use their large sources of wealth to “develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed.”

But what exactly was King’s solution to poverty? To eradicate poverty, the government must provide every American with a guaranteed, middle-class income. Such policy would ensure that each American is given a certain amount of money to spend annually.

The concept of the middle-class income is well explained in “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” the last book written by King in 1967:

“The problem [of poverty]indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other.”

According to King, this did not mean that the government should give checks to people who do not work. Instead, the government would be responsible for creating jobs and more importantly, would need to provide a basic standard of living for everyone in America.

It was not until 1968, a short time before his assassination, when King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference finally took action against poverty and organized the Poor People’s Campaign. The group aimed to unite poor people from all over the nation and bring them to Washington to gain the attention of Congress and the Johnson administration. However, King was killed before being able to lead the march himself.

Although no bill was ever passed resembling the demands of the PPC or King’s economic plan in his 1967 book, the ideas are still relevant in today’s context since roughly 15 percent of the American population live below the poverty line. Since people pay tribute to King’s successes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, there is no reason to forget that he still had one more unfinished dream about putting an end to poverty at home and abroad.

– Juan Campos

Sources: The King Center, NobelPrize.org, The Atlantic
Photo: Parade

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