Dr. King, Poor People, and the Need for Compassion


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Photo by Getty Images/DenisTangneyJr.

I have no personal recollections of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., since I was but a baby when he was assassinated in 1968. Nor did I know until years later that, as I took my first steps as a child, Dr. King was staging what would be his curtain call, a relentless effort on behalf of the underclass. 

Dubbed “The Poor People’s Campaign,” it reflected his views on the Vietnam War and the ugly riots in ghettos, both of which ripped the nation apart. I learned in school about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that King had a dream, and that he was murdered. But I didn’t learn about his last campaign for economic equality until I was an adult.

King was born into the black elite of Atlanta, and he could have avoided discussions of poverty, as many others leaders have. But being black during segregation meant well-to-do African Americans stood shoulder-to-shoulder with working-class blacks, often living next door or across the street from the most impoverished people in their ‘hoods. This meant King not only observed the daily lives of business owners, educators, lawyers, and other professionals, but also felt the weary blues of domestic workers, Pullman porters, shoeshine men, and beauticians. 

We dishonor King’s legacy when we lean heavily on his “dream” but ignore that the civil rights movement relied on the commitment of poor black people who risked their jobs, homes, and safety, from Montgomery to Selma to Memphis, to create a more equal America. 

Indeed, the full name of the March on Washington was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” because the ability to sit anywhere on the bus or at a lunch counter meant nothing if one could not afford to ride that bus or to buy a meal at that lunch counter.

2/2/2021 3:53:16 PM

Your statement, "Poverty is a form of violence", is so true. I came to the same conclusion while living for a number of years in Haiti, where I saw the terrible emotional cost to mothers who watched their children die from diseases related to malnutrition. Poverty did violence. The trauma lives on for generations. I wrote an essay on this, and will try to get it to you.

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