Income inequality is the other principal issue Martin Luther King, Jr. would want us to focus on in commemoration of the anniversary of his birthday today, January 15, 85 years ago. He would welcome and publicly support Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel") admonition on poverty and income inequality. Pope Francis said:
"Just as the commandment "Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say "thou shalt not" to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?"
Dr. King would also welcome President Obama's public declaration that poverty and income inequality is the "defining issue of our time." In a speech, Dec 6th, 2013 at Osawatomie, Kansas, the president said:
"In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent."
Now, this kind of inequality -- a level that we haven't seen since the Great Depression -- hurts us all... when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country."
In a July 7th, 1964 proposal to The Platform Committee of The National Republican Convention in San Francisco, Dr. King proposed "A Bill of Rights For The Disadvantaged." He said:
"A Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged would immediately transform the conditions of Negro life. The most profound alteration would not reside so much in the specific grants as in the basic psychological and motivational transformation of the Negro. I would challenge skeptics to give such a bold new approach a test for the next decade."
While Negroes form the vast majority of America's disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill. The moral justification for special measures for Negroes is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery. Many poor whites, however, were the derivative victims of slavery. As long as Labor was cheapened by the involuntary servitude of the black man, the freedom of white labor, especially in the South, was little more than a myth. It was free only to bargain from the depressed base imposed by slavery upon the whole labor market. To this day the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty.
It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor. A Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, applicable to white and Negro families ... could mark the rise of a new era, in which the full resources of the society would be used to attack the tenacious poverty which so paradoxically exists in the midst of plenty."
In the face of the statistical and empirical realities extant in our country today it is the highest form of hypocrisy for prominent leaders of the so-called "Prosperity Gospel," in their "Mega churches" of televangelism, to continue promoting these programs.
What can they point to that they have done and are doing to materially address the income inequality described by Dr. King, Pope Francis and President Obama? They denigrate the legacy of Dr. King in failing to actively and pragmatically address this urgent issue.
Before these "Prosperity Gospel" preachers pontificate their commemoration of Dr. King's 85th birthday, they should read his remarks from an August 10th, 1967 speech he delivered at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco to the Convention of The National Association of Real Estate Brokers. Entitled, "Transforming a Neighborhood into a Brotherhood", Dr. King said:
"Our nation is so rich, so affluent; we often fail to see the poor. So many white people don't see the poor because they are busy getting to the suburbs to the fresh air of the suburbs. They go into the city and work then they get on the expressway and go on back home. They never see the poor Negro who is struggling, devoid of hope. There are some Negroes who don't see the poor. There are some Negro members of the middle class who somehow sail the flotsam out of the muddy waters and move into the fresh flowing waters of the mainstream. They've forgotten the stench of the backwaters and the ghettos of our nation and the least of these. We must all be concerned about the least of these.
Who are the least of these? They are the thousands and millions of people living on the outskirts of hope. Who feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign? Who are the least of these? They are brothers and sisters who do not have wall-to-wall carpet but who must live with wall-to-wall rats and roaches. They are those men who walk the streets in search of jobs that do not exist. Who are the least of these? There are those who have given up because so many doors have been shut in their faces.
Who are the least of these? They are those men who soon become embarrassed and humiliated because they can't support their families, because they can't feed their children and educate them. Out of humiliation they often desert their families and the long night of illegitimacy comes into being.
Who are the least of these? They are the brothers and sisters, who out of agony, pain and the harshness of their everyday life try to escape through dope, and alcoholism, and through prostitution. As I walk through the ghettos and look at my brothers who may be dope addicts and who may be alcoholics because of this system, I stand there, not in arrogance before them, but I look at them and say, but for the grace of God, there go I."
In a blog last August I wrote about Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who spoke immediately before Dr. King delivered his " I Have A Dream" speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago. Rabbi Prinz was president of the American Jewish Congress, one of the participating sponsor organizations in The March On Washington. Part of what he said then is just as relevant and timely today.
"When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence." (Emphasis added)
The greatest threat in 2014 to the legacy of Dr. King's as we remember his birthday today is the silence and inaction of those people who so loudly proclaim their commitment to his "Dream" and their current commemoration of his birthday.