April 4 will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
At the time, we had come to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers seeking a living wage and a union. Dr. King was focused on organizing a Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to bring people together across lines of race, religion and region to call on the country to address the grinding poverty of the day.
Fifty years later, poverty remains unfinished business. In Memphis, according to the authoritative 2017 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet compiled by Dr. Elena Delavega of the University of Memphis, nearly 27 percent of the population – more than one in four – is in poverty. A horrifying 45 percent of children live in poverty. They suffer from inadequate food, health care, insecure housing and impoverished schools.
Poverty has been going up among all races, except for people over 65, protected a bit by the earned benefits of Social Security and Medicare. Memphis is the poorest metropolitan area with a population over 1 million in the United States.
In the last years of his life, Dr. King turned his attention to the plague of war, poverty and continued racial injustice. He understood that the war on poverty had been lost in the jungles of Vietnam. The Civil Rights Movement had successfully eliminated legal segregation and won blacks the right to vote. Now it was time to turn to this unfinished business.
We should not let the trauma of his death divorce us from the drama of his life, nor the riots that came in reaction to erase the agenda that he put forth for action.
At the center of that agenda was a call grounded in the economic bill of rights that President Franklin D. Roosevelt put forth coming out of the Great Depression and World War II. Americans, he argued, had come to understand the need for a guarantee of basic opportunity: the right to a job at a living wage, the right to health care, to quality public education, to affordable housing, to a secure retirement.
Now, 50 years later, we should revive Dr. King’s mission, not simply honor his memory. In the course of those years, African-Americans have experienced much progress and many reversals.
Over the last decades, blacks have suffered the ravages of mass incarceration and a racially biased criminal justice system. In 2008, African-Americans suffered the largest loss of personal wealth in the mortgage crisis and financial collapse.
Schools have been re-segregated as neighborhoods have grown more separated by race and class. New voter repression schemes have spread across the country. Gun violence wreaks the biggest toll among our poorest neighborhoods.
Through his life, Dr. King remained committed to non-violence. He sought to build an inter-racial coalition, openly disagreeing with those who championed black separatism or flirted with violence.
He would have been overjoyed at the young men and women organizing the massive protests against gun violence, building a diverse movement, making the connection between the horror of school shootings in the suburbs and street shootings in our cities. And he would have been thrilled to see his nine-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, rouse the crowd with her presence and her words: “My grandfather had a dream that his four little children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. I have a dream that enough is enough and this should be a gun-free world, period.”
Now as we mark the 50th anniversary of his death, let us resurrect the mission of his life. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland set the tone, when he announced that the city would offer grants to the 14 living strikers from that time, and establish a matching grant program to subsidize the retirement savings of active sanitation workers. He hopes to expand this to all city workers not covered by the public pension plan.
At the national level, we should act boldly. Social Security and Medicare have dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly. With a jobs-guarantee policy, a Medicare for All program, a $15 minimum wage, debt-free college and affordable child care, we could slash poverty, open up opportunity and lift hope across the country.
We have the resources; the only question is whether we have the will. That will take organizing, non-violent protests, voter registration and mobilization — a modern-day poor people’s campaign.
“We will not be silenced,” said the young leaders at the March for Our Lives. That surely is a necessary first step.