Martin Luther King, Jr. and the promise of America

“And how are the children?”

This was the theme of this morning’s 30th anniversary Crispus Attucks Community Center Breakfast honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here in Lancaster.

So how are OUR children? In Lancaster City, 42.7% of our children live below the poverty line. In Reading, 48.9%. Our children are brilliant, beautiful, precious – but they are not okay. WE are not okay when half of our children live in poverty.

Before he was killed, Dr. King turned his attention to poverty, calling on America to redeem the revolutionary promise of our founding documents:

“We read, ‘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.”

And, we could add, his children suffer too.

54 years ago, thousands of Americans gathered at Franklin & Marshall College here in Lancaster City to hear Dr. King speak. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had not yet passed. President Johnson was escalating the American military presence in Vietnam.

MLK at F&M

Still, Dr. King held out hope for our nation’s role in the world, saying to the audience:

“The noble opportunity facing America is to bring new light into the dark chamber of oppression….The destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of  all nations.”

Today, I am reminded that our destiny as a nation is still tied up with destiny of all nations, and that redeeming the promise of America still requires us to eradicate poverty. Reflecting on his life, I am called to speak up when our leaders choose bigotry and greed.

When our President chooses to degrade our relationship with the international community by insulting African nations and inflaming the wounds of racism, I am called to affirm that America welcomes all peoples from all nations into a relationship of peace and prosperity. When Congress allows 107 days and counting to pass by without new funding for the Children’s Insurance Health Program, when Congress leaves DREAMers in uncertainty and fear, I am called to protect the poor and the vulnerable.

If we are demoralized by the hateful words from our current President, let us remember that Dr. King reached for hope even at a time when African-Americans could not vote and hateful slurs were accepted in public debate. If we are distracted by the weekly scandals, let us remember the words sung by civil rights activists 50 years ago, and still sung by our own community in services and remembrances today: “Keep your eyes on the prize.”

I have faith that the promise of this nation – a promise carried like a torch from our founding revolution through abolition to the civil rights movements to today – remains a guiding light for our work just as it guided Dr. King.

I have faith that together, we can build an America that is truly for all of us.