On the first day of class, while walking through the tunnel system, I passed a couple of students who were talking about our day off on Monday the 20th. Sadly, while they were overjoyed not to have a set of cases to plow through, they seemed to have no recognition of the significance of our day off. Yes, I too am glad that we had a much needed day off. But I’m even happier that we celebrate the life of a great American, and moreover, the great idea of egalitarianism and freedom of opportunity for all of us that his life embodied.
Many of us know Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,’s work in the struggle for African American’s Civil Rights in the 1960’s. But what is not often mentioned is the work that he performed at the conclusion of his life eliminating class barriers for poor Americans, attacking the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and calling for “radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute power and social access. “True compassion,” King once said, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
In fact, in his last months, King organized what is considered the most militant project of his life: the Poor People’s Campaign. He navigated the country to mobilize “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington to conduct a nonviolent civil disobedience protest at the Capitol until Congress enacted a poor people’s bill of rights. King’s proposal called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America’s cities and family structures. He saw a desperate need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its “hostility to the poor” — appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.” King’s work at the time seemed so alarming in the public eye that Reader’s Digest warned of a revolutionary “insurrection.” Unfortunately and ironically, the man that sparked change without violence was assassinated before his Poor People’s campaign really got underway.
Today, we need King’s work more than ever. Over 40 million Americans currently don’t have access to adequate health insurance, while the divide between the rich and the poor in the U.S. continues to grow annually. Strangely, a Newsweek article last week reported that cumulatively, 40% of Americans believe that they are currently or will be before they die, in the wealthiest 1% of Americans; this demonstrates not only a dangerous separation from reality, but also how far apart the frame of reference of the enfranchised is from the disenfranchised even today.
The King holiday shouldn’t be looked at simply as a demonstration to show that the country is healing the wounds created by its internal struggle with race. That’s only a small part of its significance. King’s life stood as an ideal that he actualized; he sacrificed his life not only for blacks, but also all of the overlooked, indigent, and downtrodden masses of all races. The King holiday serves as a recognition of the greatness of diversity, but also of the need even to continue his work from nearly forty years ago.
Editor In Chief