When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was trying to move the country to take on the moral issue of economic injustice. And, for the first time in many years, the remembrances of King's death (this one the 40th anniversary) urged the nation to do the same. Usually the nation's anniversary celebrations freeze-frame King as the nation's greatest civil rights leader whose famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was the extent of his message. Later calls for economic justice and the beginnings of a Poor People's Campaign are often ignored, not to mention the controversial connection King made between poverty and war in his opposition to the Vietnam War and his confrontation of the "triplets" of "poverty, racism, and militarism."
But last Friday was different and much more hopeful to our mission here at Sojourners of putting poverty on the agenda of this election year.
Barack Obama, speaking in Fort Wayne, Indiana, made the direct connection between memorializing King and taking up the mantle of his Poor People's campaign, and fighting for the cause of economic justice for those who have been left behind. The New York Times reported that Obama focused on King's presence in Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers and the continuing need for economic justice:
The reason Dr. King was in Memphis the day he was shot, Mr. Obama told the crowd of about 2,000 people, had to do as much with economics, in the form of wages and income, as with race. "It was a struggle for economic justice, for the opportunity that should be available to people of all races and all walks of life," he said. "Because Dr. King understood that the struggle for economic justice and the struggle for racial justice were really one, that each was part of a larger struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity."
King's son, Martin Luther King III, has called for a cabinet-level "poverty czar," and, to her credit, Hillary Clinton supported that goal in her speech in Memphis, according to the New York Times:
Mrs. Clinton gave her support to an idea long advocated by the King family, a cabinet position that she said would be "solely and fully devoted to ending poverty as we know it, that will focus the attention of our nation on this issue and never let it go." Mrs. Clinton added: "No more excuses, no more whining, but instead a concerted effort."
John McCain was also in Memphis, speaking at the National Civil Rights Museum (in what was the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot.) McCain linked the anniversary to human rights, reports the Associated Press:
McCain said King "was called an agitator, a troublemaker, a malcontent, and a disturber of the peace. These are often the terms applied to men and women of conscience who will not endure cruelty, nor abide injustice. We hear them to this day -- in Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, Tibet, Iran and other lands -- directed at every brave soul who dares to disturb the peace of tyrants."
Human rights does continue to be a major issue, and the nation's poverty rate has not significantly improved in the 40 years since King's death. The national minimum wage has actually lost ground, with the 1968 rate worth $9.71 in 2008 dollars compared to $5.85 today. Many voices seem ready now to make that an urgent moral concern and commitment. Let us hope, pray, and work that it may be so.