Martin Luther King, Jr. left a lasting legacy as a civil rights leader, as a religious leader, and as a leading advocate for the poor. King’s work to bring attention to the need to end poverty is the least known of his accomplishments, though it was just as integral to him as his advocacy for racial equality.
King’s charismatic leadership inspired the country and was a catalyst in Congress’ passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he didn’t stop; he continued to press for justice and increasingly focused on worker’s rights and poverty. He saw that fighting poverty and promoting civil rights were intertwined and that achieving equality required both. Initiatives to help the country’s poor would provide opportunity for African Americans and create a more just and equal society.
Hours before his assassination, he delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, during which he said, “It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and children who can’t eat three square meals a day.” He spoke impassionedly about ridding society of poverty, and the holiness of the task to do so.
He was killed while in Memphis not promoting civil rights, but supporting a strike by sanitation workers, advocating for those who do some of the least desirable jobs in society. The work for racial justice and equality is not over, but King showed us that we need to be equally concerned with poverty– in many cases now a stronger factor in academic success than race or ethnicity.
To be such a fierce champion for justice, King found strength in his faith. But he did not believe in the superiority or exclusivity of Christianity; he saw the power of faith to inspire people to pursue justice. King was inspired to pursue non-violent resistance from the Hindu leader Ghandi, he marched in Selma with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and he nominated a Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh, for the Nobel Peace Prize. King saw that faith can be a powerful force to unite rather than to divide.
On the day that we honor his legacy, let us follow in King’s footsteps. Let us find traditions that we share, and build on this foundation to fight poverty and pursue a more just society. When we work together for the common good, all of us will be strengthened and we will feel satisfaction in bending the arc of history toward justice.
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