Monday, January 16, 2012

when he was assassinated, it was national policy of the United States to abolish poverty

MercuryNews | The state of poverty was first officially recognized by the U.S. government in July 1963 -- one month before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his soaring "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In the years that followed, need annexed itself to the national census like some malignant 51st state.

Devised by an economist at the Social Security Administration, the poverty threshold became a way of reckoning the "economic justice" for which King would campaign before he died in 1968. Though his leadership of the civil rights movement is the most memorable aspect of his legacy, King was in Memphis trying to help propel black sanitation workers into the middle class when he was assassinated.

But 44 years later, economic justice remains elusive for many Americans. While poverty gradually declined in the decades since King's death -- 32.4 million Americans lived below the threshold in 1986, the year the King holiday was first celebrated -- the numbers have climbed in recent years as the economy soured.

Today, as the nation celebrates MLK Day for the 27th time, 46.2 million of its people have slid into the misery that King spent his final years fighting, with blacks experiencing the highest rate of any group: 27 percent.

"I'm sure that would cause him anguish," said Taylor Branch, author of "America in the King Years," the Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy that spans King's transformation from preacher to prophet. "But he never spoke of poverty in purely racial terms. King said poverty is no respecter of persons or race."

King's legacy as civil rights champion was carved in stone again this summer with the dedication of his memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. But for the two generations of Americans that have grown up since his death, King's "Dream" speech has overshadowed his other work. Some fear that much of the economic justice message for which he was martyred has been lost.

"In some ways, things are worse than when Martin was alive," said Clayborne Carson, founding director of the King Institute at Stanford University. "If he was concerned about the distribution of wealth in 1968, the lack of opportunity for poor people and the lack of commitment to eliminating poverty as a social problem at that point, it seems obvious that those issues have become more pressing today."

Even the most notable economic advancement made by black Americans during the past four decades -- the formation of a vast African-American middle class -- has removed what King referred to as "the fierce urgency of now" from the plight of a larger underclass.

"It's true that many black people have moved to the suburbs," Carson said, "but in a sense that has exacerbated the problem. If you went to a King celebration at a large black church and gave one of his anti-poverty talks these days, it would not be well received. His kind of social gospel preaching is just not what works today."

Events such as the annual Freedom Train trip from San Jose to San Francisco -- whose distance matches the historic Selma to Montgomery march King led in Alabama in 1965 -- reinforce his image as a racial leader, which is exactly where the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Santa Clara Valley thinks it should remain.

"I believe we have to continue to keep his legacy in the forefront, or things could go back to the way they were," said the group's president, Bonita Carter-Cox. "Otherwise, he and other civil rights fighters could have done what they did in vain."

There seems little chance of that. Carson believes not even King -- if he were alive today -- could live up to the "King myth" that conjures up a larger-than-life racial superhero, far removed from the "drum major for justice" celebrated by the King Memorial.

"When he was assassinated, it was national policy of the United States to abolish poverty," Carson said, referring to President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," announced during his 1964 State of the Union speech. "Now if you were a presidential candidate and you proposed that, you would be eliminating yourself from serious consideration. That would be seen as something that's totally unrealistic, utopian."