On January 15, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was leaving a planning meeting for the Poor People’s Campaign when he was called back into the room. It was his birthday — his last, it would turn out.
The staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would normally give King a new suit. But this year, they wanted to make King laugh.
Xernona Clayton teased, “We know how fond you are of our president Lyndon Johnson,” which got a laugh. Then she pulled out a metal cup engraved: “We are cooperating with Lyndon’s War on Poverty. Drop coins and bills in cup.”
King laughed deeply but the joke was too true.
1968 saw the Vietnam War costing billions, while the War on Poverty was viewed as a sideshow, like spare change in an empty cup. Today, too. our government has said yes to increasing the military budget to $778 billion for next year alone — and no to $1.7 trillion over 10 years for the Build Back Better Act.
So here we are again on King’s birthday, throwing millions of children back into povertyYou can let the expanded child tax credits expire and offer nothing more than a cup of change.
As a Christian ethicist who studies King, I think it’s important to remember that he spent his last months organizing a campaign of the poor to challenge political priorities like these.
He brought together people from the poor who had organized their communities and civil rights leaders as well as faith leaders. The plan was to gather 3,000 people of all racialities to occupy Washington, D.C., confronting the administration and Congress about their inability to address the triple evils: poverty, racism, war.
Although King was assassinated before the campaign launched, the Poor People’s Campaign went forward in the spirit of King’s words from the year before, when he challenged the idea that coins in a cup were enough.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” he said at his famous Riverside Church speech in 1967. “It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Calling for “a true revolution of values,” King also warned: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
His words are all too true today. True compassion does not involve spending and throwing money at poverty. four times as much on a war budget or watching the wealth of CEOs grow exponentially while workers’ wages lag decades behind.
It will take a similar campaign to 1968 to get us to the revolution in values we need in these times.
The new version was launched on the 50th Anniversary of the original in 2018. Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival40 states have been involved in this movement, which has seen the growth of people affected by systemic injustices and moral leaders to demand that our elected officials listen to us, defend our democracy and pass. a moral budgetThat restructures the poverty-producing system.
In the midst of a global pandemic as well as ongoing attacks against democracy and the poor, we have stood up for our right to much more than change in cups. We are now organizing for the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington on June 18, 2022.
Already, meetings are taking place in state coordinating boards across the country to plan large delegations to Washington, D.C. the 140 million poor and low-income people in the nationWe all come together regardless of our differences in geography, political affiliations, race or ethnicity. We demand that our elected officials implement real policies to address poverty and low income from the bottom up.
We want to observe King’s birthday the way he did — by building the power of the poor for a radical revolution of values.