Reflections – 50 years After MLK’s Assassination- Poverty Then and Now

Martin Luther King, Jr. photographed by Marion S. Trikosko, 1964 (Public Domain)

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. He truly gave his life loving and serving people and fighting for civil rights, and I have deep sorrow that his life on earth was cut short. In addition to fighting racism, Dr. King was passionate about “rid[ding] our nation and the world of poverty,” as he stated in his last sermon, which he gave at National Cathedral on March 31, 1968.

Seeing widespread poverty in Latin America, Africa, and India was bad, but it truly brought Dr. King to tears seeing the state of poverty that existed across the US. Keep in mind that he said the following words four years after President Johnson’s administration began fighting the War on Poverty. While Johnson’s initiatives had helped, it wasn’t enough:

I was in Marks, Mississippi, the other day, which is in Whitman County, the poorest county in the United States. I tell you, I saw hundreds of little black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear. I saw their mothers and fathers trying to carry on a little Head Start program, but they had no money. The federal government hadn’t funded them, but they were trying to carry on. They raised a little money here and there; trying to get a little food to feed the children; trying to teach them a little something.

And I saw mothers and fathers who said to me not only were they unemployed, they didn’t get any kind of income-no old-age pension, no welfare check, no anything. I said, “How do you live?” And they say, “Well, we go around, go around to the neighbors and ask them for a little something. When the berry season comes, we pick berries. When the rabbit season comes, we hunt and catch a few rabbits. And that’s about it.”

And I was in Newark and Harlem just this week. And I walked into the homes of welfare mothers. I saw them in conditions-no, not with wall-to-wall carpet, but wall-to-wall rats and roaches. I stood in an apartment and this welfare mother said to me, “The landlord will not repair this place. I’ve been here two years and he hasn’t made a single repair.” She pointed out the walls with all the ceiling falling through. She showed me the holes where the rats came in. She said night after night we have to stay awake to keep the rats and roaches from getting to the children. I said, “How much do you pay for this apartment?” She said, “a hundred and twenty-five dollars.” I looked, and I thought, and said to myself, “It isn’t worth sixty dollars.” Poor people are forced to pay more for less. Living in conditions day in and day out where the whole area is constantly drained without being replenished. It becomes a kind of domestic colony. And the tragedy is, so often these forty million people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich. Because our expressways carry us from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor.

Abandoned Baltimore Rowhomes (Source: Blink Ofanaye)

The sad reality is that if Dr. King were alive today, he would see that not much has changed. Public and charter schools in Baltimore City are struggling to stay open, and (with the exception of a few schools) there is still a huge educational disadvantage for students attending schools in Baltimore City versus the surrounding counties. As of 2015, 1.5 million households in the US are living on $2 per day. How can anyone pull themselves out of debt when they are barely surviving? We don’t have berries or rabbits in Baltimore, so people resort themselves to the most demoralizing ways to make a buck: panhandling and prostitution.

As for housing, the sad reality is that my 2 bedroom Baltimore alley house in great condition in a nice neighborhood costs less to rent ($990 per month) than a 2 bedroom Baltimore alley house in fair to poor condition in blighted neighborhoods ($1300.) How? Because slumlords know that their lower income and bad credit score tenants won’t have any other choice.

The reason that we have such an ideological rural vs. urban divide in this country is because urban poverty is mostly invisible to the upper and middle classes. Visiting the Inner Harbor and attending an Orioles or Ravens game is as easy as taking I-95 to I-395 or I-83 into downtown. The attitudes of most rural and suburban residents in the Baltimore metro area is that the rest of Baltimore is a dump…not reflecting on how and why it happened, and what can be done to fix it, but just that it’s a dump.

Statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama (Public Domain)

In his last sermon, Dr. King referenced the parable of The Rich Man (Dives) and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31. The rich man wore the finest clothes and lived in luxury every day, while Lazarus the beggar sat at his gate “longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.” He didn’t want the leftovers, he wanted the crumbs that would otherwise go to waste. As he laid there, the guard dogs came and showed compassion to him by licking his wounds. When the beggar died, he went to heaven, while the rich man went to hell. By hoarding his riches, the rich man created a chasm between him and God that could not be bridged. The bible isn’t saying that it’s bad to be rich, but that it’s unholy to hoard the wealth for oneself.

Dr. King believed that equality was possible. “And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world-and nothing’s wrong with that-this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”


Before his death, Dr. King was planning to participate in a protest encampment – a poor people’s campaign – in Washington, DC to demand that the government actually address the lack of jobs, health care, and adequate housing for the poor and for black people. “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” Lead by Coretta Scott King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Rev. Jesse Jackson, the march went on a month later, on May 12th, and then a week later, Rev. Jackson lead Resurrection City, an encampment settlement on the National Mall which lasted for six weeks. While the encampment attracted America’s attention, none of its political goals were met (an Economic Bill of Rights for Poor People, $30 billion annually to fight poverty, construction of 500,000 affordable dwelling units per year until slums were gone.) In 1968, 25 million people, or 13% of the population, lived in poverty. According on the US Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates, 43.1 million people, or 12.1%, live in poverty. Very little has changed.

Resurrection City, 1968 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s not just a lack of political will that keeps things the same. In the past 50 years, the will to personally help from the general population hasn’t been there.

Upper and middle classers, like the rich man in the parable, have made consumerism king. Yes, there’s been a shift from collecting things to collecting experiences, but it is still accumulation for oneself. The average size of our houses and mortgages have increased while our family sizes have decreased. More money spent for less people. Perhaps we give a percentage of our earnings to a house of worship and/or charity, which is good, but that act is passive. We need to also actively build community with people that are struggling and suffering, and doing that can be as simple as befriending people who need a helping hand.

If we truly believe in the words of Dr. King and his legacy, then we really need to start living out those words in our daily lives and shift our lifestyles towards helping and being in community with others. It’s not enough to remember that he was a good man on an anniversary – we need to actively follow his words in our lives and do our best to help end racism, poverty, and homelessness.

Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama (Public Domain)

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