ALL THIS WEEK WE’LL BE LOOKING at the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and if it still has a prevailing effect on the modern era. He had certain core principles he stuck to, elaborated upon, and ultimately died for. We respect him. We quote him. Some even venerate him. But in so many ways we have refused to walk the path he led.
The day following his receiving of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King delivered his famous Nobel Lecture titled, “The Quest for Peace.” His reasonings didn’t go in the direction people anticipated. He wondered how we can really have peace, or even maintain it, if we continue to leave large swaths of our populations in poverty. Then he delivered a stark admission:
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”
He was greeted with a huge round of applause on that occasion over 50 years ago, but we must ask ourselves: what happened? How, after the explosion of the global economy, the movement of so many nations towards democracy, and an era of relative peace among nations, can it be that the needle has moved so little on the poverty file? Recent estimates claim that 30% of the world continues to live in poverty and that, in the affluent nations, people suffering in low-income situations are actually on the increase.
The biggest problems faced by the world’s poor are actually lack of the most basic things required for survival – clean water, food, health, shelter, safety, social inclusion, and the opportunity to participate in their own solutions. And yet, for all the wealth presently generated in this world, we can’t deliver on these most fundamental of resources.
If King was right and we had the resources a half-century ago, what do we say now that the world is flushed with cash that accrues increasingly to a small minority? It’s truer now than in his time that the resources are there, and yet we haven’t progressed as a civilization to the point where we can solve the most basic and durable of human problems.
A month prior to his tragic end, King busied himself with planning the “Poor People’s Campaign” – an effort that was predicated upon the belief that civil rights can never be achieved and guaranteed as long as people, especially the vulnerable, don’t have the means to live peacefully and productively. King seemed especially concerned about those living in hunger. Since then we have had the proliferation of food banks, monumental starvation in developing nations, billions of dollars of good food thrown into garbage dumps, and child poverty at stubbornly high levels. What are we thinking? How do we justify it? If King couldn’t do so in his generation, surely we can’t in our own.
Franklin Roosevelt noted during the Great Depression that, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” In all honesty, we have failed that test – which then puts the lie to our belief in inevitable progress.
Martin Luther King Jr. would surely have agreed with Roosevelt’s observation, as he would with that of author John Green: “There is no Them. There are only facets of Us.”
It’s time to stop quoting King and start moving forward on the ethical foundations of what he fought for. Our greatest regret as a generation might be the understanding that in failing to take the road not taken that King offered us, we will never discover the fullness of life that might have been ours if we had learned to share the wealth. Fifty years on and little has changed. Time for a civilization reset.