I recently visited Atlanta for the first time and participated in a King Center tour that included a trip to the civil rights museum containing artifacts from Dr. King’s life, a visit to the Ebenezer Church he pastored, and a stop by his childhood home.
As I went on the tour I expected a rehash of what I have learned in school about Dr. Martin Luther King: He was a civil rights leader focused on race equality who made one great speech and did a lot of marching and sit-ins.
I was surprised to find out about his radical ideas on ending poverty.
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joachim Prinz pictured, 1963. American Jewish Historical Society Repository via Wikimedia Commons.
King was determined to not only end unequal treatment of people based on race, but also based on class and privilege. He formed the Poor People’s Campaign to represent the common problems of poor whites and blacks. Before he was assassinated, he organized a huge rally in Washington, DC and began asking poor people from all over the country to go there and set up camp. King wanted thousands of people to tie up traffic until they got better jobs. People were just starting to go and stay when King was killed.
In a speech delivered months before his assassination titled “Where Do We Go From Here,” Dr. King describes the need for a guaranteed annual income:
“We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. . .It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished. Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
This sounds crazy! What’s even crazier is that it could easily be done. In 1967, a guaranteed income for every American could be accomplished for about 20 billion dollars a year—that's 133 billion dollars today. That amount represents one-third of what we currently spend on welfare and just 15 percent of our current defense budget.
Whether or not you agree with Dr. King’s stance, his assertion that economic security would positively impact the problems of housing and education seems hard to refute.
His beliefs and the beliefs of others who fought for equal rights for all encompass the reasons why I ever thought about being a teacher and why I remained in education—to end poverty and help to uplift inner-city communities similar to the Baltimore City community I grew up in. It is fascinating to see that even during our civil rights era the focus was not just on one path to ending inequality, but all of its facets.
Our recent close call with the fiscal cliff and our experience as educators in our most difficult communities, daily reveal the relationship between the problems our children face and disparities in race and class.
However, what has really changed with that knowledge? Are we willing to do the work that will provide a better future for children, even if it means taking hard positions on education, race, class, and other hot-button issues that contribute to America’s structural inequities?
There is hope! There are people fighting everyday in classrooms and communities. These people include my mom who volunteered at my school when I was younger when they were not enough teachers on her days off. These people include the former president of my university, the University of Maryland, College Park, who created a scholarship program to benefit students in low-income communities. These people include Sandy Hook Students who sang 'Over the Rainbow' For Newtown Charities to raise money to benefit the families of the school shooting in Connecticut.
All of these things—no matter how big or small—are being done to make sure that we live in a better society, to make sure that Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream can be realized: that one day children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin or how much money they have, but by the content of their character.