Reverend James Lawson was on National Public Radio yesterday, remembering Dr. Martin Luther King’s last campaign for justice. Rev. Lawson, now 89, was a leader and teacher of nonviolent resistance in Memphis then, and urged Dr. King to come in support of the sanitation workers striking to raise their poverty wages and for their rights as workers. As we know, Dr. King did come, struggled to sustain nonviolent protest as passions rose and riots broke out, and was felled by an assassin, 50 years ago today.
Martin Luther King was in Memphis to build the movement to end poverty through nonviolent action, to culminate in a Poor People’s March on Washington. He did not live to be part of that march, but it went on the following month. Grieving for him still, we can see the forces of struggle that continue to flow from the movement he helped to create, and that are being renewed today.
Some of the people who worked with Dr. King are still at work. Marian Wright Edelman, who went on to found and lead the Children’s Defense Fund, played a role in convincing Dr. King to call for the Poor People’s March and in staffing it. I was privileged to work for the Children’s Defense Fund from 1994 to 2003, and had the chance to learn from Rev. Lawson when he spoke with staff there. He is still teaching people today, and so is Ms. Edelman. On NPR, Rev. Lawson pointed with hope at the renewal of resistance: “There are a lot of signs that a lot of people want to get back on the track – the women’s marches, the DREAMers’ marches, the work to dismantle the criminal justice system and the prison system. There’s a lot of signs.” And I got to see Marian Wright Edelman accept an award from women in the labor movement a little over a week ago, in which she celebrated the fact that even in these very difficult times, we can make progress. She told the assembled women leaders about the near doubling of funding for child care in the recent spending bill passed by Congress, and the enactment of Families First, long-sought legislation to provide a source of funding for services to keep families together and to prevent the need to place children in foster care. Unflagging advocacy efforts made this possible. I know that CDF’s stellar child welfare expert MaryLee Allen has worked for years to build support for funding the services that enable parents to care for their children and to prevent their separation. This is a real victory that she helped create along with many others.
Dr. Lawson is right: the Dreamers, women, and the young people leading us to take action to stop gun violence are all getting us back on the track. Dr. King talked of the arc of history bending towards justice, but that has a sense of inevitability that is hard to feel right now, as it must have been hard to feel when he was immersed in the struggle. The election of Donald Trump and his mean-spirited politics of exclusion are enormous backwards steps. But the very meanness is sparking a response, and that response is making a difference.
We have to be the agents of the kind of change that strengthens our nation by including all our people in the opportunities for progress. Dr. King knew that, striving to bring together sanitation workers, laborers, farmworkers, the labor movement, young people, and people of faith and conscience to call upon government to tear down the legal and economic barriers to full participation. Over the decades since his death, there has been progress. But not enough. Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz reminds us that income and wages of African Americans were 55 percent of that of whites in 1967, rising to 65 percent in the late 1990s, and then falling to 60 percent more recently. The Trump Administration’s exclusionary policies operate on many fronts: attempting to end the legal status of Dreamers, threatening many other immigrants with deportation, and multiple attempts to deny health insurance, subsidized housing and nutrition assistance to millions of low-income people. Just having agreed to increased spending for many domestic programs in order to get more money for the Pentagon, Trump and his congressional allies are now considering trying to reverse some of the domestic gains by impounding funds. Trump seeks to end protections against trapping low-income people in debt through usurious payday and car loans. The Administration wanted to allow employers to confiscate workers’ tips, but was denied that through language in the recent spending bill, another victory for low-income people. They have even proposed to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which would have the effect of reducing the number of poor people counted. Inaccurate counts mean less funding for education and many other vital services in poor localities. And of course the mammoth tax cuts recently enacted widen the gap between rich and poor, and will starve needed programs for funding in years to come.
Dr. King knew that change requires the disciplined and determined advocacy of people across the nation. And as Rev. Lawson noted, there is profoundly heartening participation in the fights for health coverage, investments in our people and communities, and against gun violence. It is working, but the enemies of inclusion are powerful, and will not stop pushing back. Dr. King’s vision needs our continued action – it must live on through us.