Wednesday, the People’s Organization for Progress, led by activist Larry Hamm, held a march and rally commemorating the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign to End Poverty and Racism and to Demand an Economic Bill of Rights. The event was, fittingly, held at King’s statue at the Essex County Hall of Justice.
Although many of us were not able to attend the event—and even more of us were unaware it was happening—it is a thoughtful reminder of where we were as a nation, where we are and where we should be.
In King’s autobiography, assembled and edited by Clayborne Carson, the civil rights leader said, “We have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We are still called upon to give aid to the beggar who finds himself in misery and agony on life’s highway. But one day, we must ask the question of whether an edifice which produces beggars must not be reconstructed and refurbished. That is where we are now.”
King wrote those words in 1967 as he began to seriously consider how to address the persistent poverty and misery so many American citizens were enduring. He didn’t live to see the plan to its conclusion, but Hamm and his cohorts took to the streets to remind us of his words and how important they remain today.
One of King’s key concerns was economic conditions, including the disparity that persists in the employment or the lack of employment between white and Black Americans. There was a moment of optimism during the Obama administration when we thought that gap would be closed. According to the latest reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black unemployment at 8.8 percent is double the rate of white unemployment.
Poverty was another issue King sought to address, and it continues to be a pressing concern, although there is a difference between Black and white poverty. For one thing, the poverty experienced by African-Americans, according to studies conducted by noted sociologists, is more isolating and concentrated. A poor Black family is much more likely than a poor white family to live in a neighborhood where many other families are poor, thus creating a “double burden” of poverty. This difference is stark in most metropolitan areas, according to recent data compiled by Rutgers University’s Paul Jargowsky.
In New York City, the data show that more than 25 percent of poor Black people live in concentrated areas of poverty, whereas less than 20 percent of whites do so.
Of course, we know that where you live is where your children attend school, and it’s easy to see the correlation of educational impoverishment to this concentration of poverty.
We can point out the differences between Black and white realities in America, but King was talking about “poor people,” with no distinction about color.
“We can get more together than we can apart,” King said, expressing how to bring about change. “And this is the way we gain power. Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to effect change, and we need power.”
Effecting change and acquiring power cannot come without being aware of where we are and what’s to be done, and we thank POP for reminding of us of that important moment in the past and the words and deeds of King.
Many of us didn’t get a chance to march with King and we may be hearing about POP’s rally too late, but there’s always time to forge your own, our own, action against these longstanding iniquities.