People from all over the globe as well as in Memphis have had April 4, 2018, marked on their calendar for a long time. Those of us who have been involved on the ground and in political developments here over the past few years have long known that the MLK50 commemoration would be unlikely to change many of our city and country’s problems.
Yet with the eyes of the nation and world on Memphis, we knew it was our responsibility to do all we could to make sure the truth about how far we have or have not come would be told. By any means necessary.
As Sharon Austin points out, “Poverty is still too common in the U.S. In 1968, 25 million Americans — roughly 13 percent of the population — lived below poverty level. In 2016, 43.1 million — or more than 12.7 percent — do.”
Clearly, King’s dream and vision of the promised land has not resulted in a beloved community free of racism, classism and extreme militarism.
Even after April 4, in most cities with a high number of black and brown people, it will still be easier to get a gun or drugs than it is to get a job with a livable wage, an adequate public education or access to the ballot box.
King’s landmark legislative victory was the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. More than 50 years later, voter suppression is far too common. According the Brennan Center for Justice’s recent voting laws roundup, “lawmakers in eight states have introduced at least 16 bills making it harder to vote, and 35 restrictive bills in 14 states have carried over from previous legislative sessions. If passed, the laws would increase restrictions on voter registration and limit early and absentee voting opportunities, among other changes.”
King continues to call from the grave for us to change these realities.
Some of King’s less notable speeches and quotes tell us he knew how difficult the struggle for economic justice would be. One of King’s least familiar pieces is his final public sermon, “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution.” King was admonishing us to #StayWoke in 1968.
Take time to read it, and you’ll see that past is prologue.
This is the sermon about Dives the Rich Man, who went to hell because, according to King, “he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.” This conclusion is a theological stretch, not uncommon for King. Luke 16:19–31 does not project Dives as conscientiously objecting to the poor, necessarily. It does present him as indifferent to the poor. His wealth (or access to resources) — his privilege, if you will — meant he preferred charity over justice.
We see this same sentiment from the rich, wealthy and politically privileged today. Charity allows us to tip beggars out of pity or employ them with slave wages and claim we’ve made substantial progress. Justice demands that we change the conditions that make people poor, thus providing the economic empowerment and healthcare access that feed our stomachs and treat our sores.
King uses this text, primarily, as a platform to promote his Poor People’s Campaign. He righteously defends his commitment to aggressive, radical confrontation through direct action. He acknowledges then what we must continue to acknowledge today, that our racist structure and unjust system “doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.” Now, there’s a MLK quote we won’t find in any governmental publications.
King is explicit regarding poor and black people — yes, black, specifically. This is a pivotal point for us moving forward, especially in Memphis. While it is important to note the numerical majority of those experiencing poverty are white (which makes sense since white people are the numeric majority in the country), the Institute for Research on Poverty highlights, at 24.1 percent, “the poverty rate among blacks is more than two times greater than the 11.4 percent poor rate for whites.”
King also affirms our need to consistently confront the political establishment. This, too, is critically important as we chart our path forward. Social justice initiatives such as those King advocated for must be maximized by progressive policy support. However, in spite of all the fanfare that has been associated with MLK50, the Memphis and Shelby County administrations failed to put together any concrete policy proposals to offset the current realities — in spite of recommendations I offered in January.
A political revolution is, again, upon us. The Poor People’s Campaign has been revived. And again, we must be reminded to #StayWoke.
We cannot suppress our way out of poverty. We cannot incarcerate our way into public safety. These are mythical dreams and broken promises that continue to contaminate our community. In the spirit of King, we deserve and must demonstrate for better conditions. The plight of our people will drastically change for the better only when we demand more than dreams from civic leaders and push for more than promises from political leaders.
Earle J. Fisher is the Senior Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.