By John Berry
This month we remember the tragedy, shock and horror of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King that occurred fifty years ago on April 4, 1968. It is important that we never forget the things he taught us and the passion in which Dr. King fought nonviolently against racism and injustice and for civil rights and social change. For many he is most remembered for his leadership in the Civil Rights area. But we should also recall that poverty was an area he spoke about often and fought against passionately.
In his Nobel Peace Prize address in 1964 Dr. King addressed the issue of global poverty directly. He said:
“A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist.”
Dr. King spoke about poverty in powerful terms in a commencement speech at Lincoln University as early as 1961. He talked about a trip he and Mrs. King had taken to India and how profoundly impacted he was by seeing the thousands of hungry and homeless in the streets. He contrasted the money that we were spending to store ‘surplus’ food with the great need. He knew, and he said, that we could never be the country we desired to be, or the people we strived to be until we committed ourselves to addressing poverty, hunger, and homelessness across the globe.
Regretfully, these many years later, his words remain words in history. For the destructive nature of poverty continues to destroy lives, dreams, hopes, and souls. In his Nobel Prize speech King also said:
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”
That statement is as true in 2018 as it was in 1964. And our national collective failure to use those resources is as true to today as it was then. We have the financial and human capital to end poverty. We are a nation rich in money and caring people. We have ingenuity and passion and brains to match any challenge. We went to the moon, we invented more things than we can imagine (some good, some – like the atomic bomb – not so good.) We have proven time and time again that we truly can do anything.
Then why do we not effectively end poverty? Is it because we have chosen not to direct the resources that we have, and that Dr. King identified 54 years ago, to end it?
Just this past weekend, in a few hours, we spent more money sending 118 missiles into Syria (the estimated cost just for the missiles is $165 million) as we could spend to provide SNAP benefits to over a million people for a month. That is not a judgement or commentary on the fact that we did what we did in Syria. The reports of innocent people being gassed by a horrible regime are shocking and the response of the western allies may well be appropriate; that is not a judgement I will make here. But what it does mean is that we have resources to feed hungry people; we just use them for other things. People say we must cut aid to the poor because we can’t afford it. That is simply not true. We CAN afford to feed more hungry families, women, and children; we have just chosen to spend the money elsewhere.
The federal government has spent many millions of dollars for travel and security for the President to travel to Florida and New Jersey on his frequent golf weekends. Estimates range as high as $56 million to date. In comparison, the cost to replace all the pipes in the Flint, MI water system which is poisoning people with lead contamination is estimated to cost $55 million (Detroit Free Press, May 2016). That is not to say that the President does not have the right to travel away from DC as often as he wants; that is for the voters to decide in future elections. But don’t tell the poor people of Flint that the government can’t afford to fix the problem with the water system. It can; it has just chosen to spend the money elsewhere.
As Dr. King said 54 years ago – we have the resources to get rid of poverty. It’s just that 54 years later we are still spending it on other things. We need to understand that. And then we need to ask why.
Featured image: The MLK children, Rev. Al Sharpton, others at April 9 march on Auburn Ave (Photo by Kelly Jordan) See the full set of images here: 50th Anniversary of the assassination of MLK (photos by Kelly Jordan)