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The "Isness and the Oughtness" of Hope, Change and the American Dream"

By       Message Fay Paxton     Permalink
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More than forty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. issued a call to organize the Poor People's Campaign for Jobs and Income ". In part, a fact sheet stated the following:

"America is at a crossroads of history, and it is critically important to us as a nation and a society to chose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage."

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"It is impossible to overestimate the crisis we face in America. The stability of a civilization, the potential of free government, and the simple honor of men are at stake."

The idea came from a young civil rights lawyer, Marian Wright Edelman , who worked with poor people in Mississippi. After taking New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy to meet the nation's poorest citizens face to face, Kennedy told Edelman she ought to bring poor people to Washington so other government officials could meet them too. Edelman told this to King, and the idea of the "Poor People's Campaign" was born.

King believed there was a need for a radical redistribution of economic and political power.

" "we will lead waves of the nation's poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C. to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all.

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We will go there"and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it".If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it". If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination.... "

It was to be a "new phase" of the civil rights movement that would focus, not on social justice, but on economic justice. Desegregation of public accommodations and broad new voting rights for black citizens had done little to vanquish the problem of poverty, but Dr. King knew that attacking poverty would be more difficult, because it would cost more. It hadn't cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters or to guarantee the right to vote, but the problem of poverty would cost the nation billions of dollars.

Frightened by King's intentions to lead a campaign of civil disobedience that could disrupt the nation's Capitol, federal officials and the FBI denounced King with blistering fury. The government employed negative leaks, disinformation and informants in an attempt to derail his efforts. They labeled him a Socialist, a Communist and anti-American.

On March 31, 1968, less than a month before he planned to return to the District as the head of the Poor People's Campaign, King delivered the last Sunday sermon of his life at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He spoke about what he called the three evils of American society: racism, poverty and war. But he never made it back to Washington. He was killed five days later.

King's successor, Ralph Abernathy and others carried out the Poor People's Campaign on May 14, 1968. More than 3000 poor Americans from all parts of the country traveled to Washington. They staged nonviolent protests as King had planned and built a shantytown on the Mall and named it "Resurrection City."

The event was a disaster. The campaign ended after six weeks of relentless rains and being ignored by Congress and the news media.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 10, 1964 , Dr. King said,

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" I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him".I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits". I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up"

I hope these words inspire and strengthen the resolve of "Occupiers" around the world.


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