The Common Good

Recapturing MLK's Radical Vision

I have become increasingly convinced that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has become the victim of identity theft. Too often we domesticate King, sanitizing his radical message and selectively choosing his words. Our nation embraces the King of Montgomery and Selma but suffers amnesia about the King of Memphis who called for a living wage, or the King of Riverside who spoke out boldly against the war in Vietnam. Dr. King would be deeply disturbed by the crass materialism and naked narcissism of American society today, and he would resist the prosperity gospel that has infiltrated our churches - a message that pimps the gospel and places the crown before the cross.


Forty years ago Friday, Dr. King's life was cut short while supporting sanitation workers in Memphis. Dr. King said then, "Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working everyday? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation." Forty years later, Dr. King could still be saying the same words to the people of Memphis.


The year 2008 also marks the 40th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination while campaigning to be president with an economic justice platform in the South and Appalachia. It has also been 40 years since the poor people's campaign was derailed by the rage of riots that fanned across the nation, burning down cities and neighborhoods, including the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where Sojourners still resides. In the 40 years since, we have been wandering in the wilderness when it comes to economic justice. While there have been some modest gains, 36 million Americans are still living in the quicksand of poverty, only 4 million less than in 1968. In 1968, an unjust and unnecessary war called Vietnam diverted massive resources from social programs to a military machine that King described in speech at Riverside as a demonic suction tube! Today that same machine in Iraq drains $3 billion from our budget every week, crippling our capacity to invest in social levies across this nation.


Many of us had hoped that Hurricane Katrina would remove the scales from our eyes to the persistence and pervasiveness of poverty in the U.S. But the lessons learned seem fleeting and almost forgotten. While we are the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, 1-in-8 children still grow up in poverty, giving us the shameful distinction of having the highest proportion of children living in poverty out of all industrialized nations. The U.S. also has the highest incarceration rate, with a black child facing a 1-in-3 chance of serving time in behind bars. More people die each year of poverty related causes than from the combined casualties of war, natural disasters, and homicide. But the problem is that, unlike high-visibility crises, these are silent tragedies that almost never make headlines.


Passing a living wage represents ground zero in King's effort to fight poverty. Tragically, our nation has lost ground since 1968, when the minimum wage was worth $9.70 in 2008 dollars compared to the woeful $5.85 today. While a living wage will not be a silver bullet or a panacea to ending poverty, it represents a critical first step! A poverty wage shatters the conservative myth that if you work full time you will not be poor. Stagnant wages make a mockery out of the Horatio Alger myth that people can simply lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Low wages force too many parents to work two or three jobs, denying them precious time to raise and love their children. Low wages exacerbate the financial stresses that have become the single greatest cause of divorce in this nation. Recent studies show that poverty even harms a child's brain and social development, dooming many children to misfortune.


But there is hope. In the year 2000, 189 heads of state agreed to the Millennium Development Goals, a set of time-bound, measurable goals which include a commitment to cut in half the 1.2 billion people living on less than a dollar a day by the year 2015. The other goals deal with education, gender equality, health, and the environment. What is striking is that our president and Congress have yet to agree to an equivalent set of goals for our own nation. In 1999, the government of the United Kingdom agreed to a goal of cutting child poverty in half over 10 years. In the first five years the country managed to reduce child poverty by 17 percent.

We have ample evidence of what works. What is missing is the political will. Through the Vote out Poverty campaign Sojourners is mobilizing people of faith to put overcoming poverty at the top of the national political and electoral agenda. We are pressuring presidential and congressional candidates to endorse the goal of cutting domestic poverty in half over the next 10 years and eradicating poverty within a generation.


Join us in holding our political leaders accountable to the measurable goal of cutting poverty in half over 10 years, and help us move a step closer to realizing King's vision of the beloved community. Let's work together, sacrifice together, march together, lobby together, and organize together so that we ensure that all people made in God's image have life and have it more abundantly.


Adam Taylor is director of campaigns and organizing for Sojourners.

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