February 7, 2003


Following and Not Just Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Marian Wright Edelman

Our nation has just finished celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Now it is time to follow up the celebration by finishing his work for peace and for justice for the poor at a time when both are in great peril.

Possible U.S. military action against Iraq has provoked huge opposition demonstrations reminiscent of the anti-Vietnam War protests. Dr. King’s call to end the violence of war was passionate and unwavering in his last Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral in 1968. He said: “We must find an alternative to war and bloodshed…. It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…and the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation.” I hope we will heed and act on his prescient words today.

Dr. King not only called for an end to the Vietnam War but for an end to shameful poverty in America and around the world. He reminded us of the parable of the rich man Dives and the poor beggar Lazarus in his Cathedral sermon saying: “Dives did not go to hell because of his wealth… but because he refused to see and help his brother.” Dr. King feared America could make the same mistake and warned that our wealth could be either our opportunity or our downfall. He called for a Poor People’s Campaign to help bridge the gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots.” “The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

That is still the real and urgent question in a U.S. economy that has tripled in real value since Dr. King’s death. Although our nation has made enormous racial and economic progress in many areas, huge inequalities remain. In 1968, 40 million Americans were poor including 11 million children. Today, 37.7 million Americans are poor including 11.7 million children. Forty percent of them are extremely poor—struggling to live at half the official poverty line. The gap between rich and poor is at its highest in recorded history.

What are the Bush Administration and a majority of congressional leaders doing to help struggling children and families? They are proposing hundreds of billions of dollars in irresponsible tax cuts, which leave no millionaire behind but will leave millions of children and working families behind unless they are stopped. And they are calling for a war against Iraq that could drain hundreds of billions more dollars in this time of economic downturn that the unemployed, uninsured, uneducated, homeless, and hungry desperately need to be secure in their communities.

Dr. King had a dream that:

One day, youngsters will learn words they will not understand.
Children from India will ask:
What is hunger?
Children from Alabama will ask:
What is racial segregation?
Children from Hiroshima will ask:
What is the atomic bomb?
Children at school will ask:
What is war?
You will answer them:
Those words are not used any more
Like stage coaches, galleys or slavery
Words no longer meaningful.
That is why they have been removed from dictionaries.

This day and his dream will come true only if you and I follow rather than just celebrate Dr. King and hold our leaders accountable for truly leaving no child behind.

Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind® and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

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