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A bridge between the past and the present: A call to action for the future

“It does not mean anything if you fight to sit at the lunch counter and you still cannot buy the hamburger.”

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a substantial segment of the Bates community gathered in the Peter J. Gomes Chapel to listen to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Keynote Address entitled “MLK and America’s Bad Check: America’s Poor in the 21st Century,” delivered by Anthea Butler. Butler is an associate professor and the graduate chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Butler received a master’s and doctoral degrees in religion from Vanderbilt University, and a master’s in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is a historian of American and African American religion, a published author, and a regular guest on the Melissa Harris Perry Show on MSNBC.

Each year the Bates community focuses on a different part of Dr. King’s legacy. This year the topic was: “debt and inequality – the relevance of King’s forgotten economic message.” As the above excerpt illustrates, Butler’s speech served as the perfect articulation of this year’s topic. Throughout her speech, Butler strove to explore the ways in which poverty and racial inequality are often intertwined.

“Poverty,” Butler stated, “is a situation that bedevils us all.” Dr. King recognized this. Butler explained that while Dr. King is most known for his civil rights activism, he faced his strongest opposition when he turned his attention to the Vietnam War and poverty.

In his speech entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?,” delivered at the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Convention in Atlanta, Georgia on August 16, 1967, Dr. King made the following observation: “The Negro still lives in the basement of society.” Despite all of the civil rights progress, African-Americans still faced debilitating obstacles.

Butler argued that Dr. King’s words, spoken over forty years ago, still ring true today. Butler used census bureau statistics to substantiate this claim. These statistics are worth reproducing.

Today, 46.2 million people live in poverty in the United States with an overall poverty rate of 15 percent. As Butler pointed out, most alarming is the fact that this statistic is unchanged from 2010.

Butler also cited statistics that illuminate the racial inequality embedded in poverty. For example, 37.4% of African-American children live in poverty versus only 12.4% of white children. Here, Butler paused. “See the statistical difference?”

Furthermore, the average white household has a median income of $113,149 while the average African-American household has a median income of $5,677. That is a $107,472 deficit. I agree with Butler. “The disparity is staggering.”

However, despite these sobering statistics, Butler contends that if Dr. King were alive today he would be most appalled by the rhetoric surrounding poverty. Butler argued that we are in the midst of a moral dilemma, we see poverty as the product of laziness. This is the rhetoric that would bother Dr. King.

“It is not just about being lazy. It is about not having opportunity. It is about generations and generations living below the poverty line,” said Butler.

Butler did not shy away from calling attention to the shame and denial we, as a society, map onto poverty. Her speech in this regards, has rippling connotations – for instance, her observations imply that in order to improve poverty, we must break out from our current confining, condescending rhetoric. We must stop blaming the poor and instead, look at ourselves in relation to poverty. What should we do?

Butler suggests we consider the words and actions of Dr. King. “We are looking back to look forward,” she said.

Dr. King questioned the effects of capitalism on broader society. He argued that confronting inequity of economy is the lasting way to cement the gains of the civil rights movement. In this way, racial inequality and poverty are very much intertwined.

On September 4, 1967, Dr. King announced the “Poor People’s Campaign.” Their goal was, “to stay until America responds.” “This brought likeminded groups together to help share the burden of poverty,” Butler said.

Of particular significance, Butler noted, was the ongoing Memphis Sanitation Strike. On March 4, 1968 Dr. King gathered activists in Washington to discuss what to do. However, Dr. King’s dream was deferred when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

King’s immediate successor, Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, decided to move forward with the Poor People’s Campaign. Abernathy and co, set up the “Resurrection City” in Washington in May of 1968. On June 19, 50,000 marchers fanned out of the Lincoln Memorial, marking the height of the movement. On June 20, Molotov cocktails were thrown into the city, police officers were fired at, and they responded by opening tear gas on the city. On June 24, the city was cleared out and stranglers were charged with loitering without a permit. “Poverty went unanswered,” concluded Butler.

One of the reasons Butler’s speech was so engaging, was her ability to relate the past to the present. After her brief excursion back into history, Butler continued in the present. She compared the Resurrection City to the Occupy Movement of 2011. Like the Resurrection City, the Occupy Movement is a movement against poverty.

The Occupy Movement is specifically a response to the banking crash of 2008. This financial crash mostly fell onto the backs of “well-meaning Americans that wanted the American dream.” It is here that Butler strings together the past and the present. Just as Dr. King’s dream was deferred after his assassination, Butler notes that the average American’s quest for the “American dream” was also deferred after the fiscal crash of 2008.

Therefore, it does not help to be silent – too many dreams have been deferred. Butler cites the major strength of these movements as their ability to explicitly facilitate a conversation about poverty.

Butler, in her interactive speech style, addressed her audience. “Today we’re going to talk about poverty. Repeat it back to me.” The Chapel echoed: “Today we’re going to talk about poverty.” In that moment, the Bates community became the very manifestation of Butler’s purpose – the hope that people above the poverty line will actively acknowledge poverty and talk about it.

Butler explained that this back and forth, between the speaker and her audience, is an African-American tradition known as “call and response.” In this way, churches are transformed into “sacred spaces,” capable of tackling large-scale issues as crucial to our wellbeing as the eradication of poverty.

This awareness was one of Butler’s main points. Butler urged the Bates community to not look at poverty from a distance but to recognize the closeness of poverty to many peoples’ everyday lives. “For many people poverty is just a click away, it’s very close,” said Butler.

It is far too easy for many of us to forget even the existence of poverty in the Bates bubble. This, Butler states, is one of the underlying problems inhibiting us from improving poverty. “There are invisible people in this nation who are impoverished,” said Butler.

In closing, Butler reflected on two fundamental questions surrounding the pervasive income equality in America. Her first question, “What got us here?”, and her second, “What can we do about it?”.

So what got us here? Butler employed her religious expertise in her answer. She pinpointed the “prosperity gospel” as one of the key factors perpetuating income inequality and ignoring the poor. “Yes, I’m going there,” Butler laughed.

However humorous her argument may sound at first, it also makes a lot of sense. The prosperity gospel states that you can have your best life now. It states that Jesus was rich, not poor. In essence, it tells people that God is going to give everything to you right now. It seems to be an extension of the current dominant American consumerism culture.

The real problem with the prosperity gospel is the switch it has provoked in Christianity in this nation. According to Butler, the prosperity gospel has transformed Christians devoted to community, and serving others, into “me, my, and I don’t care about you” Christians. Butler infers that the moral center has changed – the Church has become a capitalist place to make more money.

Butler paused. She again, addressed the interested faces in the pews: “How many of you learned to balance a checkbook in high school?” More than a solid majority of the audience kept their hands down. Butler frowned. “We have a nation of people who don’t know the value of money,” she said.

Butler also included our rhetoric in her answer. She joked it is the outcome of the nation’s “Ayn Rand philosophy” – namely, the acceptance of the idea that people are poor because they want to be poor. According to this philosophy, helping people becomes a “bad word.” We are unwilling to recognize that poverty can happen to any one of us in an instant. Butler called for a change in our rhetoric.

“If we don’t stop, we will be in dire condition. The poor won’t just be on TV. They will be the people right in front of you: your friends, your family…they might even be you.”

So what can we do? Butler began her answer with things we cannot continue to do. She said we cannot continue to have meetings, which are televised but lack action. We cannot continue to have bus tours that do not actually feed people in soup kitchens.

“One problem in this nation is that we continue to have meetings to make people feel better but the poor are not there. If we do a Poor People’s Campaign, we need to invite the poor people.”

How do we eradicate poverty? Foremost, Butler said, we need to change our rhetoric about poverty and inequality. We need to change what Dr. King acknowledged as the “shame and stain” of those who are impoverished.

Again, what can we do? Butler encouraged the Bates community to consider supporting and emulating organizations such as “Occupy Debt” – an organization that actually buys debt. With $549,813 this organization wiped out 11 million dollars’ worth of debt.

“That is amazing…It is a brilliant way to begin to knock out these awful creditors, people who continue to call and call,” said Butler.

Butler also spoke about the need for a new Works Progress Administration (WPA). Butler stated we could get people to work again while simultaneously impairing our infrastructure.

In addition, Butler cited charter schools and the changing education system. “Teachers are the front line of defense against poverty,” she said.

Foremost, Butler’s theories about what we need to do to help fight income inequality and poverty centered on the need for action. Butler stated we need to continue to put pressure on Washington and that it is not sufficient to merely rely on our representatives. The way our nation is going, poverty will plague us into old age. “Most people [in upcoming generations] will die with their work boots on,” predicted Butler.

Butler’s last question she posed to the Bates community is arguably the most important: “So how can we be like King?”

Butler had a few suggestions. For one, we can work on poverty in our own communities. We also can push back against the language that says you cannot help somebody and we can begin to work with the homeless.

Butler finished her speech with a personal story about a homeless man (Tom, not his real name) who lives across the street from Butler. In this way, Butler is an active witness to the existence of poverty everyday.

“I’m old but I wonder what it is going to be like for the rest of you,” said Tom.

Butler did not have an answer. All she knows for sure is that we must get back to Dr. King’s commitment to care for those in need.

“We cannot be an exceptional nation unless we care for those who have little, the least. Honoring Dr. King will do little good if we have not met the mark he has set for us.”

In conclusion, Butler’s speech exemplifies the importance of recognizing the past in the present, and then applying the past to the future. It is not good enough to contemplate the ways in which Dr. King fought racial inequality and poverty. To do Dr. King justice, as Butler stated, we must act.

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