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.

This formed the crux of MLK’s argument when he put his Nobel Peace Prize and status as a national and global leader on the line and condemned the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, exactly one year prior to his assassination, in an address at the renowned Riverside Church in New York City. In a speech that should be held in the same regard as the “I Have A Dream” address, King not only criticized the war, but highlighted that we were sending poor blacks and poor whites to fight poor yellow people in Vietnam. 

He also called for “a radical revolution of values,” from profit and material things to people, and pinpointed the gross financial gaps between Americans. His wokeness around economic hardship had accelerated just two years before, during a visit to the Watts section of Los Angeles after the deadly rebellion that occurred there, prompting King to call riots “the language of the unheard.” It also drove him and his wife Coretta Scott King to move into a rundown building on the west side of Chicago, their very presence demonstrating the vicious cycles of poverty.

King’s Poor People’s Campaign was designed to confront poverty head on, bringing a rainbow coalition of black, white, Latinx, Native American, Asian, and others to Washington, D.C. There they set up the same kind of tents and shacks that we now routinely see in places like downtown Los Angeles, populated by a permanent homeless class. 

When I recently visited L.A., I cried after witnessing countless people of every background and age in tents, sprawled on the ground, sifting through bug-infested garbage cans for a meal. There was disease and stench and an overwhelming sense of depression, in the midst of high-rise condos and the Staples Center and great wealth. This is not in a nation overseas, this is in our America, this gross poverty, this gross despair.

Poverty is a form of violence. I know that firsthand, because I experienced it growing up poor with my single mother in Jersey City, from the late 1960s into the early 1990s. Until I was seven, we shared a one-bedroom apartment in a rat-and-roach-infested building with one of my mother’s sisters and her son. My cousin slept in the same bed with his mother in the living room, while I slept in the same bed with my mother in the bedroom. 

I grew up knowing about welfare, food stamps, government cheese, unpredictable heat and hot water, fear, desperation. I remember hunger, and my aching stomach served as a constant reminder of what we lacked, of our daily struggle to survive. America did not hear the desperate cries for help from poor people like my mother, like my family. 

We know the root causes of poverty, as they have forever been the same. It is the inhumane greed and neglect of those with means at the expense of the rest of us. It is being forced to live in poverty bubbles—ghettos, trailer communities, homeless encampments. 

The poor are trapped in a horrible cycle of broken-down tenement buildings, minimal social services or resources, terrible public schools, and limited options to get ahead. Poverty breeds isolation. It leads to people preying on each other. It leaves many of us resigning ourselves to a life of misery, of merely surviving day-to-day. 

As the late rapper Tupac Shakur once put it, we were given this world, we did not create it. I inherited, like a family heirloom, the poverty my mother received from her parents. We knew of no other reality, and the traumas and scars of being poor remain with me to this day, despite what I have been able to do with my life.

This is why King laid out a vision to confront poverty head on—as bold as his decision to travel to Memphis, Tennessee, the site of his assassination, in support of black garbage men who were on strike to demand safer working conditions, job security, and fairer wages. 

This is why I wait, during every presidential campaign cycle, to hear candidates talk passionately about poverty, only to be disappointed.

We cannot continue to ignore King’s appeal to challenge economic justice and economic opportunity for all in our America. This is not to diss wealth or the wealthy. No one can control the circumstances of their birth, nor is there anything wrong with privilege, as long as that privilege is tied to a sense of humanity. 

Just as King did to the end, we can direct our compassion toward those who hurt, as my family did, because of our background. We can practice what he called “a dangerous kind of selflessness.” We must care about each other, every single day of our lives. We must figure out practical solutions to address poverty, to address homelessness, or we will continue to be a nation that is spiraling dangerously out of control, morally and spiritually.

Kevin Powell is a Civil & Human Rights Activist; Public Speaker; Author of 14 books; Poet; Journalist; Filmmaker; Pop Culture Curator; Biographer of Tupac Shakur


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