Martin Luther King day began in the Peter J. Gomes Chapel this past Monday morning with a theme of debt and inequality. It began with an introduction from Dean Reese, a welcome from President Clayton Spencer, an overview by Pamela J. Baker, an Introduction by Charles Nero, and finally, Anthea Butler’s keynote address, titled, “MLK and America’s Bad Check: America’s Poor in the 21st Century.”
Anthea Butler is an Associate Professor and Graduate Chair of Religious Studies at University of Pennsylvania. She is a historian of African American religion and has written books such as her Women in the church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World and The Gospel According to Sarah. She writes for the online magazine Religion Dispatches and appears as a guest regularly on the Melissa Harris Perry Show on MSNBC.
Butler began her speech with Dr. King’s less well-known history—his role in fighting against poverty throughout the nation. In November 1967, Dr. King spoke at a meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and announced his Poor People’s Campaign—a plan for an initial 2,000 poor people to camp out on the mall of Washington, D.C. and meet with government officials to demand jobs, unemployment insurance, and general economic security. After King’s assassination in April of 1968, the SCLC decided to continue with the plan and set up Resurrection City, a temporary settlement of shacks and tents on the mall of Washington.
While the Poor People’s Campaign made some gains, it had a lack of a clear set of demands, and the campaign failed to reach the main goal of economic security. Butler brought the discussion of the Poor People’s Campaign to our poverty issues today and related the Poor People’s Campaign to our decade’s Occupy Wall Street.
We have a large problem of poverty in our nation. Butler presented some shocking statistics. 15% of Americans live in poverty. 37.4% of African American children (that is children under the age of 18) live in poverty. 31.4% of Hispanic children in the United States live in poverty. The numbers disproportionately show minorities living in poverty.
“Eradicating poverty is not charity, but justice,” Butler stated, “Helping people has become a bad word. And I call this the nation’s new Ayn Rand philosophy—we’re all on our own, we can choose to be selfish, and all those impoverished are there because they want to be,” she paused. “Nobody is poor because they want to be.”
Butler claimed that the bottom has dropped off for a lot people because of unemployment, the crash, the slowness of people coming back to work, and health care in this nation. The poor now, are even poorer. And there are mover and more people who have dropped below the poverty line.
“How do we start to fight this?” Butler asked her audience. The first step she suggested is to stop having meetings about poverty where one talks about poverty without doing something about it or without even having a poor person at the meeting. How does one know where to begin in the struggle against poverty, if one does not know poor peoples’ main struggles?
Butler offered one organization to donate to—Occupy Debt, an organization that buys debt from many of those stuck in debt. Occupy Debt has wiped out $11 million dollars of debt already. One can visit their website at Rollingjubilee.org and contribute.
Butler stated a few main matters we need to focus on if we wish to fight poverty. First, we need to change our rhetoric about poverty. We need to make sure we respect the impoverished. People are not below the poverty line because of their laziness or lack of hard work. Secondly, we need a new works project administration. Not only would a new Works Project Administration rebuild our infrastructure that is falling apart and too long neglected, it would rejuvenate the economy and give jobs to many of those 15% of people below the poverty line. Thirdly, we need to focus on education—children are our most important resource and teachers are our front line of defense against poverty. Finally, we need to make sure everyone has affordable health care, and that they can pay for serious and much needed operations, procedures, and medicine.
Fighting and eradicating poverty seems like a lofty, if not impossible goal. It is an overwhelming idea to take on, but not one that should be deemed impossible. There are many roads to take on the battle to fight poverty—the first step is to become an active citizen. One ought to be active not just with their votes, but with their words and with their actions, for the issues that one fights for. With 47,000,000 Americans who live at or below the poverty line, we ought to aid in fight against poverty.
Anthea Butler’s speech was eye opening. Many of us who go to Bates don’t have to worry about falling below the poverty line. There may have been times when our families struggled financially—perhaps we didn’t get that new iPod for our birthdays, or our parents didn’t allow us to go to that really expensive sports camp. For others of us, we moved in with relatives when our parents couldn’t afford our homes, or we ate the tasteless state provided school lunches because at least it was food.
We must remember that there are people at Bates, in Lewiston, in our hometowns, and across the country who are below the poverty line. Perhaps we do not always recognize poverty or perhaps we do not like to think about it. This is no excuse to ignore it. Poverty is not a choice. It’s not just the few homeless people you see in the cities. Poverty is single mothers with their kids, the unemployed fathers and mothers who are desperately searching for jobs, or the young graduate who can’t pay back their student loans. Poverty needs to be recognized. We can help the fight against poverty at the local level through volunteering and contributing, and at the state and federal level through our vote and political participation.
To quote Martin Luther King Jr., “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.” We have the resources, and with them we can eradicate poverty.