Each year, we honor the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We honor his struggles and his triumphs. We honor his work to stand up to racial injustice and to help America move one step closer to her founding promise of equality.
But when Dr. King was taken from us, he was engaged in another struggle – a struggle that was no less challenging, a struggle that he believed was essential to America’s soul.
It was the struggle to end poverty. And it is a struggle that is still with us today.
For years now, we have heard the claim that America is broke, that we cannot afford to invest in our children and that we must tell our seniors to try to get by on less. We face a world in which those born in wealth will have plenty of opportunity, but those born in poverty have little chance to escape – a world in which people work their hearts out and barely hang on.
That is not the promise of American life. That was not the America of Dr. King’s dreams. And that must not be our American future.
In 1967, Dr. King told us what it would take to combat poverty. He said:
[W]e are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
We are now engaged in a great debate over poverty and inequality. And as Dr. King argued, “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar.”
Our success as a community will be measured not by the riches of a few, but by the success of many.
There are some people who say that there is little that we can do, and perhaps less that we can do together, as a country. Dr. King had a response to them. He said, “[t]here is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.”
In this, the richest and most powerful country in the world, we can expose the symptoms and causes of poverty, just as Dr. King’s nonviolence “exposed the ugliness of racial injustice.”
In this, the richest and most powerful country in the world, we can come together to build an economy that works for all our children, just as Dr. King’s movement helped make “justice a reality for all God’s children.”
“In the final analysis,” Dr. King said, “the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent.”
The struggle may be fierce, the climb uphill, the obstacles tall. But in a democracy, we, the people, get to choose our destiny, and we can choose a country that lives up to America’s founding promise and achieves Dr. King’s dreams.