Let's follow King's advice

Published: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 3:02 p.m.

It's an eerie time to be celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

In the beginning of January, President Obama was hanged in effigy in Plains, Ga., home of former President Jimmy Carter. And for part of his first year in office, Obama was receiving 30 death threats a day, a 400 percent increase over the number of threats President George W. Bush was receiving. The Secret Service has attributed some of this to the fact that Obama is our first black president.

The incident in Plains harkens back to the country's ugly past where thousands of black people were lynched all across the country, and racial oppression ruled the lives of most blacks.

It reminds us that the United States has not entered a "post-racial" period that many have prematurely proclaimed.

King provided advice for us on this front.

"Like life," King wrote in "Where Do We Go From Here," "racial understanding is not something we find but something we must create." But racial understanding is not the only issue the nation faces that could benefit from King's vision.

"Poverty is one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life," King said in his Nobel Peace Prize address in 1964.

It's more urgent than ever right now, since poverty has worsened in the last 10 years.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported last year that 39.8 million Americans are classified as poor. This is up from approximately 32 million in 1999.

It is not just the very poor who are suffering, either. The nation's unemployment rate remains at 10 percent, as millions of citizens from all walks of life have lost their jobs due to the recession.

In addition to job losses, home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies are extremely high. And homelessness is up as well, as is hunger. The Food Research and Action Center reports 49 million Americans as going hungry each night. This includes 22 percent of all children.

In his Nobel address, King declared all-out war against poverty. And he added: "The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst."

That, too, remains the case today.

On one final domestic issue, King's voice rings clear: "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane," he said.

Today, more than 45 million Americans lack basic health insurance, and the current health care reform bill does not guarantee them comprehensive, affordable care.

More than four decades after King's death, we are still dealing with some of the basic problems he addressed.

We need to arrive at a post-racial and post-poverty America. But we're not there yet.

Brian Gilmore is a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.

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