By MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, Black men as well as White men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check, which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963
To celebrate the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and their partners hosted a commemorative march on August 28 to bring awareness to the “anti-Black pandemic” raging across our nation alongside the “disproportionate impact of a global health pandemic” on Black Americans and others left behind in poverty 57 years ago and still left behind today. This year some participants gathered in person while many others “marched” virtually but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message then is as relevant and urgent now and we need to hear, heed and do what he told us to do to make America a more just United States of America with urgency and persistence.
Just as Old and New Testament prophets were rejected, scorned, and dishonored in their times, so was King by many when he walked and worked and preached among us. Now that he is dead, many Americans remember him warmly but have sanitized or trivialized his crucial messages and prophetic life. They remember King the great orator, but not King the disturber of unjust peace. They applaud the King who opposed violence, but not the King who called for massive nonviolent demonstrations to end war and poverty in our nation and world. They recite the “I Have a Dream” part of his August 1963 speech but ignore its main metaphor of a promissory note still bouncing at America’s bank of justice, waiting to be cashed by millions of citizens who are poor in all races. And while we love to celebrate his dream and great oratorical skills, we continue to ignore his fears and repeated warnings about America’s misguided priorities, values foot dragging and failure to ensure justice for all. He worried we were missing God’s opportunity to become a great and just nation by sharing our enormous riches with the poor and overcoming what he called the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism.
In his last Sunday sermon at Washington National Cathedral, King retold the parable of the rich man Dives who ignored the poor and sick man Lazarus who came every day seeking crumbs from Dives’ table. Dives did not respond. Dives went to hell, King said, not because he was rich but because he did not realize his wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf separating him from his brother and allowed Lazarus to become invisible. He warned this could happen to rich America, “if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.”
King died in 1968 calling for a Poor People’s Campaign with urgency. There were 25.4 million poor Americans, including 11 million poor children, and our gross domestic product was $4.13 trillion. Today there are 38.1 million poor people, including 11.9 million poor children. Our country has been plunged into a coronavirus recession because President Trump and other federal leadership have failed to take timely and effective steps to protect our most vulnerable people. It’s time to ask again with urgency whether our nation is shirking its great responsibility to be a beacon of hope and help and justice at a time of such great need and suffering.
The day he was assassinated in Memphis, King called his mother to give her the title of his next Sunday’s sermon. It was “Why America May Go to Hell.” In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King stated that America hadn’t yet committed to paying the real price – in actual dollars and cents – of equality: “The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities with Whites.” But, he said, “the real cost lies ahead… The discount education given Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is far beyond integrating lunch counters.” He said the price would be great but so would the rewards. It would all come down to our will: “The great majority of Americans…are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.” Will the social justice movement required to trump the grossly inadequate leadership by the Trump administration enable us to rise up and be sustained to produce a sufficient response? This is still the question in 2020 as the pandemic recession is pushing millions of families further behind.
In his last week of life King told a group of close friends: “We fought hard and long, and I have never doubted that we would prevail in this struggle. Already our rewards have begun to reveal themselves. Desegregation…the Voting Rights Act…But what deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.” “What would you have us do?” one shocked friend asked. King answered, “I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.”
At a time of unprecedented national risks and an unmoored leader, we must all prepare to be firefighters and lanterns of hope. Fifty-seven years after King’s March on Washington we must renew and strengthen our actions to build a just and united America and ensure a level playing field for every child. We must not let anyone tell us that our rich nation’s vaults of justice and opportunity are bankrupt. And we must stop the raiding of national resources by the powerful and rich at the expense of the millions of children and people left behind. We must together build and sustain a transforming nonviolent movement to ensure a true United States of America that lives up to its promises of liberty and justice for all beginning with our children who only have one childhood. Let’s honor King and save America’s future and soul by heeding and following our great American nonviolent prophet.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is Leave No Child Behind. For more information, visit http://www.childrensdefense.org.