This year’s three-day celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s life, legacy, and “forgotten economic message,” began with a keynote address delivered by Dr. Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania. President Spencer’s introduction, in which she praised the Bates tradition of observing the holiday, “In a spirit of self-challenge rather than self-congratulations,” perfectly set the tone for Dr. Butler’s address, titled, “Martin Luther King Jr. and America’s Bad Check: America’s poor in the 21st Century.”
Dr. Butler’s core argument was that we have lost Dr. King’s critical and compassionate approach to poverty. Though King has been immortalized as a cool-headed yet passionate civil rights reformer, Butler showed that King was also an astute economic thinker and critic of capitalism. King understood that poverty and inequality were less a function of individual actions and more a product of the capitalist system itself.
In his famous April 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here” speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King claimed that “the Negro still lives in the basement of the great society,” and therefore would always remain in the impoverished, artificially constructed capitalist system that had been created for him.
Moreover, King argued that this system had to be questioned. “There are forty million poor people here,” King said. “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth…One day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
To that end King, spurred on by civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, began to develop a plan for a mass march on Washington, which would later become known as the “Poor Peoples’ Campaign.” Although King was assassinated in the midst of this campaign, SCLC leaders, after some debate, decided to press on. In May of 1968, 3,000 poor African-Americans marched to Washington and established a tent city known as “Resurrection City.”
Butler drew several parallels between Resurrection City and the Occupy movement—both created ad hoc living quarters, neither had specifically articulated goals, and both were monitored by police and the FBI—to segue into a discussion about twenty-first century poverty.
And yet, despite this parallel, Butler concluded that poverty today is arguably an even more entrenched problem. Butler attributed our failure to eliminate poverty to a range of cultural, political, and ideological changes since the 1960s.
For example, Butler claimed that today, “We have a nation of people who don’t know the value of money,” in no small part because public schools and churches no longer teach children how to balance a checkbook—a skill that Butler herself recalled learning in high school.
In addition, Butler rightly imputed our cultural callousness to poverty to the resurgence of Ayn Rand’s political philosophy, openly touted by the political right, which advocates for a sort of radical individualism and considers the poor to be so because, in Butler’s words, “They want to be.”
Finally, Butler argued that rising healthcare costs and state and local cutbacks to government programs have severed vital economic lifelines to those about to sink into poverty.
Butler’s closing remarks resounded with a call to action. Butler quipped that she was, “Tired of bus tours,” and that it was no longer enough to simply, “Write your elected officials” to ask for change. Instead, she advocated for real action, like a change in national rhetoric, a “New WPA” to rebuild our infrastructure and create jobs, as well as an end to privatized secondary education, which she feared exacerbated educational inequality. This last note struck a chord with sophomore Charley Kenyon, who agreed that concrete action was the best solution. As Kenyon simply said, “The Bates bubble is a stupid thing.”
While Kenyon noted that some community outreach programs appear limited to education majors, he still thought that, “Bates does a good job with community outreach…and has a lot of great programs with the schools around here.”
In all, Butler’s keynote address provided a powerful start to Bates’ MLK celebration. Butler reminded the community that this national holiday is not only a time to reflect on an incredible life cut short, but also a time to realize that Dr. King’s message still has resonance, and that his dream has yet gone unfulfilled.