By I. smiley G. Calderón
After such a horrible, tragic and unthinkable year, it’s a breath of fresh air to finally put 2020 behind us and look earnestly upward toward a hopeful new year. And there’s no better way to put a smile on your face than to be inspired by the remembrance and celebration of the beautiful life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a true American hero.
As a nation, we officially commemorate this civil rights legend on the third Monday of January, right around his birthday of Jan. 15 (1929). But this year, MLK Day falls on Jan. 18 (it won’t happen on his actual birthday again until 2029). MLK Day kicks off the first three-day weekend of every year in the United States. That’s something to smile about, for sure.
When we think about Dr. King, not only do we smile but we also fondly remember his valiant leadership and dynamic, selfless passion for racial equality and fairness for everyone here in the United States, and especially for African-Americans, who have been historically and systematically disenfranchised in this country for hundreds of years.
Dr. King brought hope and light to a hopeless and dark existence where so many poor Americans at the time were unjustly subjugated to an ever-present ravaging racism problem.
And even today, Dr. King’s legacy and enduring message of brotherly love and justice for all continues to shine a hopeful ray of light in face of the dark remnants of this pernicious institutionalized racism still plaguing our land.
But instead of egregiously conspicuous racist policies or the blatant discrimination of yesteryear, much of today’s endemic racism is sneakily packaged within the social inequities found in poverty. This vestige of racial disparity has long-lasting negative generational effects that impede economic growth and prosperity—not only for nuclear and extended families but also within vulnerable neighborhoods and communities throughout the nation.
Dr. King keenly understood the vicious cycle of poverty and, after his earlier civil rights victories throughout the country, began to mobilize to eradicate this core culprit in America.
Dr. King Was Serious, Too
Dr. King’s conviction was captured in his last book written before his untimely assassination, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Dr. King makes it clear: “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them.”
Straight to the point, Dr. King is direct in his objective: “The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
Since those dismal days of the pre–civil rights era, where our social and legal systems of the day were blatantly racist, thankfully laws have changed for the better and indeed measurable progress has been made for equal civil rights for every American. Yet, it’s only because of the groundbreaking sacrifices and perseverance of leaders both at the community and national levels that today, once severely subjugated and oppressed minorities, have more equal opportunity and rights than ever before.
That kind of selfless dedication and service is powerful. It is the medicine that our nation needs.
MLK Day is America’s national day of service for our community, a clarion call for Americans to work together to build, to heal and to remedy our most pressing challenges. It is not just another typical holiday “day off”—but, instead, it is a holiday “Day On.” A day “on” that is open for community service and community engagement that lasts the entire year.
We all know that Dr. King was an important civil rights leader, but what most people don’t realize is that he was also an incredible anti-poverty crusader. Immediately before his death, he had been working to organize the Poor People’s Campaign, a march on Washington, D.C., that would bring the plight of the poor to the immediate forefront of America’s attention.
Dr. King wanted economic justice for all. It was the missing factor in his quest for racial justice. He had realized soon enough that if racial justice did not improve the lives of the oppressed in tangible, economic material ways, then what good was it?
Focusing on the Core Problem of Poverty Is Key
We all can agree this past year has been a trying one, to say the least. But one thing I hear all the time is, “Hang in there. We’re all in this together. We’re all in the same boat…”
But, when I think about this for a little, is this really true? For sure, I know we’re all experiencing the same storm, so to speak: the pandemic and the uncertainty of election politics, and anything else lingering from 2020—but are we really in the same boat?
My vessel is more like a glorified styrofoam ice chest taped together in a woodshop class, with holes and leaks everywhere. I’m so busy trying to get water out of it so that I don’t sink that I don’t even notice all the yachts and cruise liners that are around, circling me. That’s right, today some people are experiencing these unprecedented times in battleships and submarines while others only have the clothes on their back to keep them warm.
We are not all in the same boat because all of our economic realities are drastically different across America. Some will not survive the storm while others will sleep soundly as it crashes all around them.
The young, yet ever so wise, Dr. King understood this at his core. Which is why he was such a strong promoter of a guaranteed income for all to help alleviate poverty across the board for every American—a multiracial effort with the simple idea that all people in America should have what they need to live. It’s not a complicated concept, and it’s really pretty simple: Economic rights are human rights.
For this new year’s celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., may his dream of economic justice and equality in a land so infamously known for its unspeakable injustices continue to live on and resonate today in your hearts and minds as our dear America quests for racial equality, civil rights and brotherhood, for the betterment of our nation, of we the people.
I smiley G. Calderón is a Gen X Chicano and lifelong educator who spent a career in academia in Southern California but is most proud of being a father.