In his last book published before his death, Rev. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr presented the civil rights movement nestled in the continuum of the long struggle for America to fulfill its promises and its potential. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community (1967) is prophetic in its portrayals of how American society would look if we did not fulfill our founding covenant that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence). Key to that fulfillment is addressing the curse of poverty.
His analysis is firmly grounded in a profound understanding of both the Scriptures and of American history. Ironically, as Dr. King and many others point out, America’s wealth and its poverty have the same root—slavery. It has become popular in many circles today to pretend that slavery and its long-reaching affects are old news, no longer relevant to the events in our society. But spiritual laws, as well as socio-economic principles are not so easily cast aside.
I can hear the preacher in him when I read his challenging words, “All too many of those who live in affluent America ignore those who exist in poor America…To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it” (Kindle location 1368). As with the anti-segregation movement, King particularly criticizes the churches of America for their silence and complacency in the face of social evils. He believed, and I too, that “the church must take the lead in social reform” (Kindle location 1567) because passing and enforcing laws “cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality” (Kindle location 1579). He foresaw that many of the supporters of the struggle to end segregation, would back away when the newly franchised turned their attention to the breaking the chains of poverty, or as he put it “financial privilege” and “long-established cultural privilege” (Kindle location 1503). Yet, as he reminds us true American patriotism cannot accept the massive impoverishment allowed and perpetuated in this nation (Kindle location 2020).
I have challenged my students, and encourage you, to move beyond our wall-calendar, church-fan image of Dr. King with his words, “free at last,” taken out of context as his last or only message. (Listen to that speech again: He didn’t say we are free at last; he said one day). In 1967-68, Dr. King was pointing out the hypocrisy and the disparity between what we as a nation spend on military misadventures versus what we spend to undo the lingering legacy of poverty. How all across the nation, from major Northern cities to Southern rural towns, schools for children of color consistently receive pathetically less funds and other resources than those serving white students. Sadly, those ratios have not dramatically changed in the decades since King’s murder. His voice still rings, “The curse of poverty has no justification,” (Kindle location 2457), and we still have much work to do.