Today, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would be 85 years old if he were still alive today. Across the country, businesses, governments, and schools are closed to allow people to celebrate the memory of one of history’s most important figures.
Dr. King is a towering figure whose commitment to civil rights, nonviolence, and alleviating poverty and inequality was unwavering and inspiring, both to those who were alive during the civil rights movement and to all of us who have benefited from his legacy. He believed that all Americans no matter their race, creed, or national origin should be provided the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.
Although I was only a young child in the 1960s, throughout my childhood I remember being mesmerized by his speeches on television, by the dignity and humility his booming voice conveyed through the tiny screen. My family and I were in awe of the faith Dr. King put in nonviolence, even when in Mississippi, Alabama, and elsewhere young black children were being hosed with water cannons, black houses of worship were being bombed and torched, and civil rights activists were being persecuted and even killed because of their commitment to equal rights. Not to mention the constant threats to his own life that he received.
While these acts are not occurring in our cities in America today, other important challenges exist that our city leaders must address to give citizens a stronger sense of community and let them know that opportunities to achieve the American Dream are still there for the taking.
It’s also important to remember the emphasis Dr. King placed on breaking down barriers to economic equality for all, which is surely an issue he would want us to focus on as we celebrate the anniversary of his birthday. Dr. King would no doubt applaud President Obama’s recent declaration that economic inequality is the “defining issue of our time.”
Now, in the midst of a slow but hopeful national economic recovery, we are still faced with widespread inequality. A recent post in the New York Times’ Economix blog talks about the connection between inequality and poverty, and discusses inequality’s poverty-inducing impacts. “We’re baking a smaller economic pie and cutting less equal slices,” author Jared Bernstein notes.
Shortly before his death, Dr. King devoted much of his work to raising national awareness of poverty and inequality by mounting the Poor People’s Campaign, which advocated for affordable housing and increased access to jobs for low-income people of all races. This work continues today in cities across the country, many of which are taking tangible steps to reduce inequality.
I leave you with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” given in support of striking sanitation workers in the City of Memphis. It’s one of his most sweeping and memorable speeches, and one that directly addresses economic injustice and the need for economic equality.
Be moved. Be inspired. And honor his legacy by volunteering in your community and helping others not just today, but as often as you can.
About the Author: Clarence Anthony is the Executive Director of the National League of Cities. Follow Clarence on Twitter at @ceanthony50.