How Much Is Enough & MLK
6:36 pm
Fri January 17, 2014

MLK: A Bootless Man Cannot Lift Himself By His Bootstraps

Rev. Martin Luther King delivering his 'I Have a Dream' speech in 1963, as captured by photographer Bob Adelman, who tells us about being there that day and shooting this photo.
Credit Bob Adelman

Today, Florida’s poverty rate is just over 17 percent and the city of Miami’s hit 29.5 percent in the most recent Census data. At the end of the 1960s, poverty levels in the South hovered around 18 percent of the population.

It was during that time when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent much of his energy organizing what he called the "Poor People's Campaign." It worked to achieve economic justice and equality for poor people -- a disproportionate number of whom were black.

RELATED: Hear From People Who Were At MLK's March On Washington

Four days before his death, King delivered his Sunday sermon called “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He preached about the nation’s responsibility in addressing poverty among all colors.

He began the story of the intersection of poverty and race in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation and on through the great depression.

In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, "Now you are free," but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his last Sunday sermon at the Washington Cathedral. He focused on the nation's responsibility to tackle poverty.

But the lack of support wasn’t necessarily prejudice against the poor -- land in the Midwest was given away to farmers, the majority of them poor but white. Agricultural colleges were established on that land to train them and increase their productivity.

It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

The Poor People’s Campaign was one of King’s last major efforts before his 1968 assassination. Joined with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the campaign worked to tackle economic inequity as a means to rectify racial inequality. With the escalation of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty was struggling and the Poor People’s Campaign saw itself as picking up the pieces.

This is America’s 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.

King wanted to organize a march in Washington of poor people, to force those in Washington to see, think and respond to the problem in front of them.

We read one day, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which took over the Campaign after King’s death, organized one of the many protests to the Republican national convention held on Miami Beach in august of 1968 August. The SCLC continued its work through the early 1970s, though many efforts to secure money from Congress failed.

Despite his untimely death, one of King’s many legacies was connecting racial issues with economic issues, a challenge the nation, and South Florida in particular, still face today.

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