While many remember Dr. King for his civil rights activities, far less are aware of the work he did in support of the Poor People's Campaign. Dr. King's goal in the Poor People's Campaign was to develop an American society that would be more focused on supporting the poor. The backbone of this movement was the belief that a society should be judged not by the quality of life of the wealthiest, but by how its poorest are treated.
So where is America now in terms of our treatment of the poor? What would Dr. King think of our progress with regard to caring for the poor in America?
He would acknowledge that the basic necessities, per Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, are covered to varying degrees. For those who cannot afford, there are opportunities to get some food though the consistency and quality are not always good. Shelter can be accessed for most in need though safety concerns and restrictions keep many away. Limited healthcare is available for the poorest through Medicaid though service coverage is imperfect.
He would criticize the gaps left for the working poor to fall through in health care. He would point out that the free market for health care is not free in the United States. He would rail against the fact that Americans pay two to five times more for health care than other wealthy countries while having shorter life expectancies than wealthy European countries, Australia and Japan. He would cite that safety is a major issue, especially for the poor, with the United States having a murder rate that is two to 10 times that of most other wealthy countries. He would argue that the justice system is heavily slanted against the poor, citing that a poor person is far more likely to be incarcerated for the same crime as a wealthier person. He would point out that European countries of similar wealth such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom have incarceration rates that are less than 1/5th that of the United States. He would cite American's income inequality, which vastly exceeds other wealthy democracies as a symptom and also an invading infection into the health of America. He would argue against the corporate welfare and handouts that help the few privileged while hurting both current and future generations of the rest of the society.
Dr. King might finish by challenging America to rise to its historical greatness. The country that landed a person on the moon, that wrote the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and that rebuilt so much of the world after World War II should better support its own people to create a glorious future for new generations of Americans. Presently there is so much low-minded bickering in America as people scurry to grab the pennies dropping to the floor of the American economy that, as a nation, we are losing site of the long term view. If we want a great nation to exist here 50 or 100 years into the future, we must remember that investing in all of society, not just the privileged few is necessary.
Lastly, Dr. King might remind America that, "A house divided against itself cannot stand," and while America allows itself to self-destruct through internal politics, apathy and greed, the rest of the world will continue to develop and prosper.
Author's note: I have focused on poverty as a reminder of the breadth of Dr. King's vision and activities. I'll leave it to millions of other to talk about his contributions to civil rights.