“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., address at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963
At Dr. King’s death in 1968 when he was calling for a Poor People’s Campaign there were 25.4 million poor Americans, including 11 million poor children, and our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $4.13 trillion. Today there are 46.2 million poor people, including 16.1 million poor children, almost half living in extreme poverty, and our GDP is three times larger, and shamefully the younger children are the poorer they are. One in three Black and Latino children are poor. National wealth and income inequality are at near record levels while hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, fear, and hopelessness stalk millions of children and adults across our land who have been left behind in our economy.
The day he was assassinated in Memphis Dr. King called his mother to give her the title of his next Sunday’s sermon. It was “Why America May Go to Hell.” In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King stated that America hadn’t yet committed to paying the real price—in actual dollars and cents—of equality: “The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities with whites.” But, he said, “the real cost lies ahead . . . The discount education given Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is far beyond integrating lunch counters.” He said the price would be great but so would the rewards. It would all come down to our will: “The great majority of Americans…are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.” That is the overarching issue our nation and every citizen must face today as we leave millions of children unprepared to become the competitive workers and military, education, economic, and diplomatic leaders of tomorrow.
In his last week of life Dr. King said to a group of close friends: “We fought hard and long, and I have never doubted that we would prevail in this struggle. Already our rewards have begun to reveal themselves. Desegregation…the Voting Rights Act…But what deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.” “What would you have us do?” one shocked friend asked. Dr. King answered: “I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.”
Dr. King knew then as we must know or learn today that our work was not done and that the successes of the Civil Rights Movement and integration were not alone doorways into a Promised Land. We were gaining access to a society riddled with poverty, inequality, violence, militarism, materialism, and greed. Dr. King made it very clear that he saw America and the world at a dangerous crossroads. A Civil Rights Movement stalled short of true equality without a parallel opening up of economic opportunity. Poverty at home and around the world that led Dr. King to call for nothing less than a national and worldwide revolution of values: