Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is honored every January, and every January, I am shocked by the degree to which we celebrate his work as if it is done and we have no further work to do than to be nice to each other.
But the campaign left unfinished has been waiting more than 50 years for us to pick up where he left off.
That work is the work of the Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign sought to bridge the issues of race and poverty, bringing working people together. It also sought to show working people how the militarism of the United States had led us to spend billions of dollars on conflicts around the world that benefited corporations and exploited workers and poor people all over the globe.
Access to fair wages, health care, a healthy environment, quality education, affordable and safe housing, retirement benefits and disability protections, and many other economic needs have not been the reality for the majority of America.
King knew that working people would “only get what we are organized to take” and knew that divided we would never have enough power to change the systems keeping us in poverty. When King was organizing, there were 40 million poor people in America. In 2013, we had 45.3 million with incomes below $11,892 annually and another 97.3 million who live below twice those income levels.
That means 48% of American live in poverty or near poverty.
We know racism is still functioning systemically as well — we know it from data on mass incarceration, home ownership, educational attainment and health outcomes. Inequality is widespread and not getting better.
We can’t celebrate MLK day by simply feeding those who are hungry or resting on our laurels for past achievements. We’ve got work to do. Real work.
I am grateful for the vision King cast, but I know we aren’t living his dream unless we are gathering to demand what King demanded in 1967-68, unless we become that new unsettling force. This is why I celebrated MLK’s dream with the new Poor People’s Campaign led by Rev. Drs. Liz Theoharis and William J. Barber II in May 2018 by engaging in nonviolent direct action and organizing across Kansas with other like-minded Kansans, and why I continue to engage in this work.
People who ask us to not “politicize” MLK Day are not celebrating MLK. They are celebrating the status quo.
Rise up, come on and rise up! On March 28, Barber and Theoharis return to Kansas and on June 20, we will travel by the thousands to Washington, D.C., to show our support for this movement and this dream.
The Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Topeka and board chairwoman for Kansas Interfaith Action.