Jobs and God’s Concern for the Poor
The following is an excerpt from remarks given by Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, at the March on Washington Anniversary Praise and Worship Service at Mt. Airy Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., on August 22, 2013.
It comes as no surprise that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man guided by God’s love for all people, would speak passionately about economic justice for all, especially for African Americans. Dr. King said this in a speech titled “Showdown for Nonviolence,” just before his assassination, when American cities had erupted in riots:
A nationwide nonviolent movement is very important. We know from past experience that Congress and the president won’t do anything until you develop a movement around which people of goodwill can find a way to put pressure on them . . . This really means making the movement powerful enough, dramatic enough, morally appealing enough, so that people of goodwill, the churches, labor, liberals, intellectuals, students, poor people themselves begin to put pressure on congressmen...
Our idea is to dramatize the whole economic problem of the poor. . . We call our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income because we feel that the economic question is the most crucial that black people and poor people generally are confronting. There is a literal depression in the Negro community. When you have mass unemployment in the Negro community, it’s called a social problem; when you have mass unemployment in the white community, it’s called a depression. The fact is, there is a major depression in the Negro community. The unemployment rate is extremely high, and among Negro youth, it goes up as high as forty percent in some cities.
We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work. Some people are too young, some are too old, some are physically disabled, and yet in order to live, they need income . . . It would mean creating public-service jobs, and that could be done in a few weeks. A program that would really deal with jobs could minimize ---I don’t say stop---the number of riots that could take place this summer. Our whole campaign, therefore, will center on the job question, with other demands, like housing, that are closely tied to it. Much more building of housing for low-income people should be done. . .
On the educational front, the ghetto schools are in bad shape in terms of quality . . . They need more and special attention, the best quality education that can be given.
These problems, of course, are overshadowed by the Vietnam War. We’ll focus on the domestic problems, but it’s inevitable that we’ve got to bring out the question of the tragic mix-up in priorities. We are spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development.
In his final Sunday sermon — at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1963 — Dr. King spoke of the need to eradicate poverty in our nation and around the world.
There is another thing closely related to racism that I could like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. They are ill-housed, they are ill-nourished, they are shabbily clad. I have seen it in Latin America; I have seen it in Africa; I have seen this poverty in Asia. . . .Not only do we see poverty abroad. I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken. . . . I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia.
I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country, and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying. . . America has the opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.
Dr. King was right that the moral character of poverty has changed, because we now know how to get rid of it. Since Dr. King’s time, lots of countries have, in fact, reduced poverty — countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Brazil, and Great Britain.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, our country cut our poverty rate in half. The economy was strong, and the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty made a difference. But we never built the broad movement for economic justice that Dr. King called for, and our poverty rate is now higher than it was in 1974.
But we have an opportunity now to build the movement against poverty that Dr. King envisioned. African-Americans, Latinos, white people of modest means, and young people came out to vote in large numbers in the last election. The faith community has been effective in fending off the powerful forces that are pushing to decimate programs for poor people. The movement for immigration reform has become electric. And just recently, we have seen growing awareness of the injustice of mass incarceration. Right now, we are seeing courageous labor actions among fast-food and Walmart workers.
God, help us to build the broad movement against poverty that Dr. King envisioned.
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