January 17, 2000
Boston Globe, January 17, 2000
If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today he would surely marvel at how far this country had drifted over the last three decades, that America could gaze upon the vistas of a new millennium with no vision of ending poverty in the world’s richest nation. How could it be, a nation at peace, the Cold War ten years behind us, and still no hope for America’s poor? With Federal budget surpluses piling up as far as the eye can see, could it really be that the Congress has committed itself to cutting funds for nutrition, housing, and education for the poor? And at the same time increasing military spending, squandering tens of billions on weapons systems designed to fight an enemy that no longer exists?
Worse yet, our largest and most successful anti-poverty program– Social Security– has come under attack, for no other reason than the whetted greed of Wall Street financiers looking to expand their operations into the public sector.
As for the poor, they are expected to live their improvement vicariously through others’ joyful accumulations in the soaring stock market. It goes almost unnoticed that the majority of Americans still have literally and absolutely no stake in these swelling asset values.
We are told that we should all be grateful for the long cyclical upswing that has brought unemployment down to four percent. But King, too, experienced a similar economic expansion with even lower unemployment. And in sharp contrast to the last quarter century, during which most wage earners have not shared in the fruits of economic growth, he lived through a time in which these gains actually did trickle down.
But rather than simply celebrating the advances of economic growth and technology (yes, there were rapid and futurologist-inspiring technological changes in the pre-internet era), King demanded “the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.” He called for the government to guarantee employment and income well beyond the poverty level.
Was King politically naïve? Hardly. He was looking at the nation from the point of view of its potential, and his proposals to eliminate poverty were well within our economic means. This is even more true today, as our income per person is more than one and a half times greater.
Dr. King’s vision of social and economic justice did not stop at the water’s edge. He called upon Americans to “help their nation repent of her modern economic imperialism.”
This economic imperialism is even more pervasive now, with Washington controlling the destiny of most of the world’s poor through the IMF and the World Bank. How King would have shamed them for bleeding Africa as they do today, exacting debt payments from the world’s poorest countries that are ten times as much– relative to income– than was considered conscionable to take from Germany after World War II.
In the last years of his life Dr. Martin Luther King spoke out with increasing urgency against the Vietnam War, calling on young men to resist the draft. He recounted the history of what he saw as a colonial war, trying to imagine how the Vietnamese people must have seen their “strange liberators.” “They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. . . So far we have killed a million of them, mostly children. . . What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?”
In one of his most powerful speeches, he added: “The politicians won’t tell you this; the press won’t tell you this… But,” he roared, “God told me to tell you the truth!”
And so he did, in oratory filled with passion and thunderous eloquence. By speaking truth to power, at the same time that he led a movement for racial and yes, economic justice, he became the conscience of the world’s most powerful nation.
So let us honor Dr. King today as he deserves to be honored, by telling the truths that those who sit in the corridors of power do not want to hear, in the hope that America may one day be able to find its conscience again.