Boundary County Human Rights Task Force: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and economic rights

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Timothy Braatz Guest Opinion

Each January, Martin Luther King Day honors the historic Civil Rights leader. King is best known for his “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King’s “dream” was that his children, and all U.S. citizens, would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins, of New Hope Baptist Church in Spokane, will recite “I Have a Dream” at the annual Martin Luther King Day program, sponsored by the Boundary County Human Rights Task Force. All are invited — Saturday, Jan. 18, at 2 p.m., at Trinity Lutheran Church in Bonners Ferry.

One measure of the Civil Rights Movement’s success is that racial bigotry, though still present, is generally unacceptable today. Affirmations of human unity are the norm, matching King’s call for a “beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

King had another message — one that receives far less attention. In 1967, King began addressing the “evil of poverty.” He explained, “In the present conditions of a nation glutted with resources, it is barbarous to condemn people desiring work to soul-sapping inactivity and poverty.”

King wrote, “We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work. Some people are too young, some are too old, some are physically disabled, and yet in order to live, they need income.”

To make hunger and poverty visible to lawmakers, King began organizing a nonviolent “Poor People’s Campaign.” He proposed that the marchers, of all races, build a squatter settlement in Washington D.C. and say, “We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way; and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.”

On April 3, 1968, King spoke in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of 1,300 sanitation workers on strike for better wages and safer conditions. King reminded his audience, “God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here [on Earth] and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.” The following day, King was murdered.

The problem of poverty is old, King once observed, but “we now have the resources and techniques to get rid of poverty. The question is whether our nation has the will.”

Over 50 years later, the answer still appears to be no.

In 1967, approximately 26 million U.S. residents lived in poverty. Today, according to federal statistics, it’s 40 million. That’s 40,000,000 humans unable to satisfy basic needs such as nutrition, heating, child care, and health care. Over 500,000 are homeless — about 2.5 times the entire population of Spokane. Around 11,000,000 adults cannot find the full-time employment they seek.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest 10 percent of families hoards about 77 percent of all wealth, and the next 40 percent of families holds about 22 percent. That means the bottom 50 percent of families share only 1 percent of the national wealth.

According to Idaho statistics, approximately 236,000 state residents live in poverty, including over 2,000 in Boundary County. Among K-12 students statewide, almost 8,000 lack “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Around 80 students in Boundary County fit this category.

What would King say about our vast wealth disparity? Perhaps what he said in his final sermon: “Ultimately, a great nation is a compassionate nation. America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor.”

By the way, an economic bill of rights does exist — in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 23: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Article 25: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

With this in mind, the Boundary County Human Rights Task Force encourages you to consider helping county residents troubled by poverty — not just on the King holiday, but throughout the year.

Anyone wishing to donate their time, talents, money, or goods — and anyone seeking assistance — can contact Liz Bigsby (208-267-FOOD) at the Community Action Partnership, which offers programs and services to low-income community members.

The Boundary County Fuller Center for Housing builds new homes for impoverished families. To donate money, unused house fixtures, or construction labor, please contact Teresa Rae (208-946-6582).

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare offers free or low-cost programs and services, including medical help and emergency shelter. If you need assistance, visit their website (211.idaho.gov) or dial 2-1-1.

• • •

Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence at Saddleback College. Previously, he taught at Southern Utah University and Arizona State University. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Arizona State, and is the author of several books, including “Peace Lessons” and “From Ghetto to Death Camp: A Memoir of Privilege and Luck.” Locally, he wrote and directed the dramatic scenes for Vicki Thompson’s recent productions, “A Common Beat” and “Stardust!”

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