Rise Like Lions

Martin Luther King Monument, Washington, DC
Martin Luther King Monument, Washington, DC

What if Dr. Martin Luther King had lived? What if he had not walked out onto the balcony in Memphis that day? Or, what if the assassin's bullet had missed?

On the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday (Jan. 15) and a national holiday to honor his memory (Jan. 18), it's appropriate to ask: To what cause would he have dedicated the rest of his life? What was his unfinished business?

As a friend, advisor and personal lawyer who spent countless hours with him, marched with him, witnessed the events of Selma and Birmingham first-hand, and contributed a key portion of his momentous "I Have a Dream" speech, I believe I know the answer.

If my friend Martin is looking down upon us right now -- and I believe he is -- he would say that ending poverty is THE existential issue for us today. Public squalor in the presence of unprecedented private wealth is morally obscene and ethically unacceptable.

Does his dream live on?

The heartbreaking truth: Poverty is undiminished -- just as real and oppressive as prejudice ever was. It is a wound in our American soul that is rotting and festering. Our prisons are full-to-bursting with poor people. They weren't born in prison, they were born free -- but into a system impacted by the earlier institution of slavery and the contagious virus of white supremacy.

In the state of California where I live, it costs more to keep a man in prison than it does to send him to Harvard University. Therefore, I respectfully pose this question: Why aren't our prisons full of rich people?

In the race for the American Dream, we do not all begin at the same starting line. A case in point. When John F. Kennedy graduated from school, his father gave him $1,000,000 (that's at a time when one million dollars was a lot of money!). His Harvard education was 100% paid for. He didn't worry about the crushing debt of student loans, a burden that will take our young people the rest of their lives to pay off. When Donald Trump graduated, his father gave him a job in the family Real Estate business which had amassed 24,000 affordable housing units and $200 million in equity. While he was still in diapers, Donald Trump had more wealth than most of us could hope to accumulate in ten lifetimes. Thus, he enjoyed opportunities few of us can ever imagine.

Donald Trump started the 100-yard dash at the 90-yard line.

This is why our prisons aren't full of rich people: Injustice begins at birth

I admire billionaires like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Skoll, Pierre Omidyar, and millionaires like Nick Hanauer who are using their wealth to benefit humanity. These wonderful people see poverty and suffering and refuse to look away and mumble to themselves: "It's not my problem."

In today's economy, the idea of the self-made man is, to a surprising degree, a myth. The American Dream has slipped from our grasp. This is true not only for African Americans and Hispanic Americans. It's true for 97% of all Americans. It's not a problem only of race anymore, it's a problem of opportunity. If we don't do something dramatic to avert the moral obscenity of poverty, the American Dream will become a quaint relic of history.

I suggested to Dr. King the idea that the American Dream is a promissory note stamped ISF (insufficient funds) and he agreed, which is why he included it in his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Judging from the news headlines, the most important thing we have to think about at this moment is terrorism. I challenge this! I'm not saying terrorism is not serious business. I'm saying we need to get our priorities straight. Mahatma Gandhi -- whom Dr. King admired and often quoted -- said: "Poverty is the worst form of violence."

Think about this: Each time our political and military leaders fire a cruise missile, they are lighting a match to a one-million-dollar bill. Our military machine eats up hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Surprisingly, our politicians always find plenty of money to build new nuclear aircraft carriers and refurbish our absurdly bloated stockpile of nuclear missiles.

With so much money floating around, I ask: How is it possible that a military veteran can be living homeless on the streets of San Francisco or Detroit or Washington, DC? Again:THIS IS MORALLY OBSCENE!

We marched hand-in-hand. We worked so hard 52 years ago in hopes that those today would not have to march. But we can't rest. We have unfinished business. The issues thrust into the spotlight by "Black Lives Matter" about the abuses of police power and the injustice of the justice system are stunning. However, we must think bigger than that. The use or disuse of the so-called "race card" will cease only when there is a completely new "deck" from which the cards are drawn.

An African proverb reminds us: "If the surviving Lions don't tell their stories, the Hunters will get all the credit." This is why young people today need to know more about the preeminent Lion of the 20th Century, the apostle of nonviolence, love, and the pursuit of excellence.

Dr. King understood that there are two Americas: The America of golden opportunity, and the America that has little or no hope. He knew that a nation that does not have hope for most of its citizens can never be great. Like him, we must be passionate, courageous, and tireless activists. There's no way in hell you can be risk-averse if you want to take on racism or poverty in America.

We must rise like lions.

In 1819, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote these words after the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, England where cavalry charged with their sabers drawn into a mass of 60,000 peaceful, poverty-stricken protesters.

Shelley wrote:

"Rise like lions after slumber... rise in unvanquishable number.

Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in your slumber had fallen on you.

Ye are many, they are few."

Dr. Clarence B. Jones was a principal advisor, personal lawyer, and draft speech writer to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is Visiting Professor at the University of San Francisco, a Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, and the co-author of two books: What Would Martin Say? and Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.

Eric Kasum is founder and CEO of the Imagine Institute, a think tank (www.imagineinstitute.org). He previously wrote for The Los Angeles Times, CBS News, the White House, and a think tank in Washington, DC.