Forty Years Later
We still need to place human needs up front
By Sullivan Robinson
and Arnold Kohen
Forty years later, the March on Washington remains in our hearts and souls as a time when almost anything seemed possible. The voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech rings in our ears and admonishes us to do better. Therefore, even if at first glance we seem to live in much more difficult times, that is only an illusion. In reality, there was plenty in 1963 that could have discouraged those trying to bring about change had they fallen into the trap of despair. Now, forty years after the gathering at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, we must gather all our experience and strength to meet the challenges of our day. Nothing else will do if we truly want to honor the memory and example of Dr. King.
The March on Washington was in part an effort to dramatize the conditions of poverty in a nation of plenty. It was a hopeful time. In 2003, however, poverty is rising, and the current lack of public discussion of this and related questions seems to render persons struggling in poverty invisible to the larger society. But forty years ago, the expression of the national mood emphasized economic viability for all its citizens. And that expression inspired needy communities.
Next year, in 2004, we will mark the 40th anniversary of the enactment of legislation that mounted the “war on poverty” under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Administration. Across the nation, Community Action Agencies created by this legislation continue their vital work with the poor. Yet even with escalating poverty rates, available resources to meet these needs are shrinking.
Statistics in Washington, DC illustrate a troubling trend, as reported in a DC Agenda Neighborhood Information Services research paper published October 2002. In the midst of considerable affluence, poverty rates are rising here: 109,500 DC residents live in poverty, or 20.2 percent of the population, an increase of fourteen percent from a decade ago. More than thirty percent of DC’s children live in poverty, an increase of 24 percent since 1990. African-Americans had the largest numeric and percentage increase among all racial categories: more than one quarter of the African-American population is now in poverty. Poverty rates by Neighborhood cluster show 32 out of 39 with increasing poverty rates.
How do we again lift up human needs to their rightful place, so that even in this climate of deficit spending, we can underscore the need to be able to re-capture a true social and philanthropic zeal for our brothers and sisters both here and abroad?
There is great importance in educating the public on the issues wherever necessary. We must not shirk our obligation to continue to pursue the dream of educating ALL children, not only here but throughout the world and dealing with domestic and global poverty in a thoroughgoing manner. The mark of a great nation is not how it is able to conquer others, but how well it progresses in facing challenges on the domestic and international scene. And the greatest test is how we meet the needs of the least of those among us. That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about forty years ago — and that, in good measure, is what the struggle was, and is, all about.
As our nation spends nearly $4 billion per month in Iraq, unmet human needs are increasing. We must find the means to expand help for Head Start children and, yes, children in places like Liberia as well. One wonders what Dr. King would say.
Arnold Kohen is international coordinator of Global Priorities, an inter-religious campaign to change budget priorities. Sullivan Robinson is an independent consultant to community and faith-based organizations.