By Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
I must remind you that a starving child is violence. Suppressing a culture is violence. Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her family is violence. Discrimination against a working man is violence. Ghetto housing is violence. Ignoring medical needs is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence. — Corretta Scott King
Something is wrong that we have to feed so many. Why should there be poverty with all of our science and technology? There is no deficit in human resources – it is a deficit in human will. — Coretta Scott King
This past April marked 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and subsequently the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The discussion of the fair housing act is particularly relevant today as there have been numerous efforts in recent years, both underhanded and overt, to undermine and ultimately overturn this essential law (as ineffectual as it has sometimes been).
Another 50-year milestone that has just recently past, is what history has come to know as “The Roads to Resurrection City.” It was on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968, that Corretta Scott King led thousands of demonstrators from far and wide to Washington, D.C., demanding that the United States Congress pass an Economic Bill of Rights, an idea which was originally proposed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. The centerpiece of Dr. King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” the Economic Bill of Rights called for, among other things: full employment and a living wage; sufficient and affordable housing; and the right to healthcare, social security, and quality education. Of the Poor Peoples Campaign, Dr. King said “We believe the highest patriotism demands the ending of the war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty.”
Of course, Dr. King was not around to witness the culmination of this campaign or the establishment of Resurrection City on the National Mall where he helped to lead the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom nearly five years earlier. In late June of 1968, six weeks after setting up camp in Resurrection City, demonstrators were violently evicted by the local police and National Guard and nearly 300 of them, including Dr. King’s most trusted aide Rev. Ralph David Abernathy were arrested.
Today, history is repeating itself as a new movement (inspired by Dr. King’s original vision), The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, has emerged in communities throughout the United States. This campaign restates the demands of 50 years ago and adds several more, while highlighting the rising social and racial inequities in employment, education, housing, economic security, access to healthcare and health-related outcomes, human rights, and environmental justice. And just a couple of weeks ago, on Monday, May 14, thousands of protestors, including 13 near the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, were arrested as they engaged in a national groundswell of nonviolent civil disobedience, which, according to the Minnesota Poor People’s Campaign, calls for “new initatives to fight systematic poverty and racism, immediate attention to ecological devastation and measures to curb militarism and the war economy.”
The national Poor People’s Campaign, along with its state and local affiliates and supporting partners will continue these demonstrations over the next couple of weeks before convening at the United States Capitol Building on Saturday, June 23. Dating back to the Women’s March on Washington in January of 2017 up to the student-led March for Our Lives this spring, this will be at least the 22nd major demonstration to take place in Washington DC over the last year-and-a-half.
I am curious to see how America reacts to the upcoming march as well as all of the related events leading up to it. Why? Well, let’s be frank for a minute. An enduring theme throughout the history of this nation is that people living in poverty are somehow to blame for their own plight. And, there are a number of journalists, scholars, and activists, including John A. Powell and Arthur Brooks who have recently declared that “America can’t fix poverty until it stops hating poor people.”
Please indulge me for a moment while I shift gears to reinforce this point. I chose the two quotes above from Mrs. King specifically for their bold and straightforward assertions. Number one; poverty is violence. And second, as her husband acutely noted, “poverty has no justification in our age.” Why then, do we not have the will to end it? Why do we choose to hate instead?
I have occasionally used this column to reference insights from comedian W. Kamau Bell’s CNN documentary series “United Shades of America.” In the third season’s premier episode, which aired at the end of April, Bell visits the U.S. – Mexican border to engage locals about their thoughts on “illegal immigration” and “the wall.” He visits with a pair of Border Patrol officers, who above all, view their principle responsibility as saving lives. They cite the hundreds of migrants, determined to make a better life for themselves and their families, who die every year from dehydration, heat stroke, and even hypothermia.
It is very common for activists and even concerned citizens who live on the border to leave water out in the hopes they might possibly save the life of a fellow human being. Yet Bell contrasts this good will, with images that have been captured of Border Patrol agents who think differently that the two he interviewed. Knowing full well why the water is there, one Border Patrol agent is shown on film casually kicking gallon after gallon of water down a steep desert hill. Another agent is shown simply dumping water into the sand while he smiles and speaks directly into the camera. Whatever he was muttering was unintelligible to me, but he was obviously quite proud of himself. Apparently, that was his idea of justice, or national security, or whatever. Let that sink in. And while we do, let us not forget that poverty is violence. Poverty kills. Hate kills.
Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104