As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, many are discussing what Dr. King would say to the nation and world today. But his message to us today is as clear as it was 50 years ago if only we could hear, heed, and follow his warnings about what we need to do to make America America.
Just as Biblical prophets were rejected, scorned, and dishonored in their own land in their times, so was Dr. King by many when he walked and worked among us. Now that he is dead, many Americans remember him warmly but have sanitized and trivialized his message and life. They recite the “I Have a Dream” part of his August 1963 speech but ignore its main metaphor of the promissory note still bouncing at America’s bank of justice, waiting to be cashed by millions of poor and minority citizens. He worried that we were missing God’s opportunity to become a great and just nation by sharing our enormous riches with the poor and overcoming what he called the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism.
In his last Sunday sermon at Washington National Cathedral, Dr. King retold the parable of the rich man Dives who ignored the poor and sick man Lazarus who came every day seeking crumbs from Dives’ table. Dives went to hell, Dr. King said, not because he was rich but because he did not realize his wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf separating him from his brother and allowed Lazarus to become invisible. He warned this could happen to rich America, “if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.”
At Dr. King’s death in 1968 when he was calling for a Poor People’s Campaign, there were 25.4 million poor Americans, including 11 million poor children, and our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $4.13 trillion. Now, national wealth and income inequality are at near record levels while hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, fear, and hopelessness stalk millions of children and adults across our land. Isn’t it time to ask ourselves again with urgency whether America is missing once again the great opportunity to be a beacon of hope and justice for the least among us, beginning with our children, who are the poorest Americans?
The day he was assassinated in Memphis Dr. King stated that America hadn’t yet committed to paying the real price—in actual dollars and cents—of equality:
“There are no expenses, and no taxes required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities with whites.
But, he said, “the real cost lies ahead . . . Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is far beyond integrating lunch counters.” He said the price would be great but so would the rewards. It would all come down to our will.
That is the overarching issue our nation and every citizen must face today as we leave millions of children unprepared to become the competitive workers and military, education, economic, and diplomatic leaders of tomorrow.
In his last week of life, Dr. King said to a group of close friends that “what deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.” “What would you have us do?” one shocked friend asked. Dr. King answered: “I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.”
Fifty years later, we must not give up on building a just America for every child and person. We must not let anyone tell us that our rich nation’s vaults of justice and opportunity are bankrupt. And we must not tolerate any longer any resistance to creating jobs, jobs, jobs which pay enough to escape poverty, public and private sector, and providing the education and early childhood development supports every human being needs to survive and thrive. I hope we will commit ourselves on this fiftieth anniversary to building and sustaining a powerful transforming nonviolent movement to help America live up to its promises and forge the will to translate America’s dream into reality for all.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.