“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.” Not too many years ago, Kirtley Mather, a Harvard geologist, wrote a book titled, Enough and to Spare. He set forth the basic theme that famine is wholly unnecessary in the modern world. Today, therefore, the question on the agenda is: Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table, when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life?”
In January 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took a very rare ‘sabbatical’ at an isolated house in Jamaica far away from telephones and the constant pressures of his life as a very public civil rights leader to write what would become his last book: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
Professor Mather’s book arguing that mankind had achieved the ability to move beyond famine was published in 1944, yet in 2015, despite seventy more years of unparalleled advances in scientific and technological capability and global resources and wealth, hunger and want are still rampant – most shamefully in the United States with the world’s largest economy.
Hear again Dr. King: “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will . . . The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’”
When Dr. King died in 1968 calling for a Poor People’s Campaign, there were 25.4 million poor Americans, including 11 million poor children. Today, there are more than 45.3 million poor Americans, including 14.7 million poor children, living in our boastfully rich nation.
The question is why we allow poverty still to exist, especially among our children who are the poorest age group of Americans, and the answer remains the same: The deficit in human will and genuine commitment to a fair playing field for all by a critical mass of leaders and citizens in our morally anemic nation.
How can it be that the top 1 percent of Americans enjoy more of the nation’s wealth than the bottom 90% combined and that millions of children are hungry and homeless and poorly educated? If the qualification for individual and national greatness is genuine concern for the ‘least of these’ as those of us who are Christians say we believe, and if nations and our concurrent role as members of nations and not just as individuals are accountable, then too many of our political, corporate, and faith leaders and citizens – all of us who live in America – are failing.
The national holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birthday is over, but I hope we will heed and act on his 1967 declaration: “The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty”—and work to win the first victory right here at home in the biggest economy on earth and end the shame of 14.7 million children being the poorest Americans by ending child poverty now.
Dr. King’s voice guides us if we are willing to hear and act on it and use it as a road map for action no matter the political weather. Reflecting on the direction the struggle for civil rights and social justice should take in Where Do We Go from Here?, he shared a story about the need to commit to difficult struggles for the long haul and described a nine and a half hour flight he had taken from New York to London in an older propeller airplane. On the way home, the crew announced the return flight from London to New York would take twelve and a half hours. When the pilot came out into the cabin, Dr. King asked him why. “‘You must understand about the winds,’ he said. ‘When we leave New York, a strong tail wind is in our favor, but when we return, a strong head wind is against us.’ But he added, ‘don’t worry. These four engines are capable of battling the winds.’”
Dr. King concluded: “In any social revolution there are times when the tail winds of triumph and fulfillment favor us, and other times when strong head winds of disappointment and setbacks beat against us relentlessly. We must not permit adverse winds to overwhelm us as we journey across life’s mighty Atlantic. We must be sustained by our engines of courage in spite of the winds. This refusal to be stopped, this ‘courage to be,’ this determination to go on ‘in spite of’ is the hallmark of any great movement.”