Martin Luther King III is on a mission to revive his late father’s 1968 anti-poverty campaign in hopes to quell unrest in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri — and he’s taking his message straight to the White House and all of the 2016 presidential contenders.
Mr. King told The Washington Times he believes that Washington can combat poverty without creating a welfare state. The key, he said, is generating new opportunities for the poor, and the first step should be to appoint a “poverty czar” to focus on poverty-stricken Americans.
“Many are shocked by the behavior in Baltimore and Ferguson, but, as my father said, ‘Violence is the language of the unheard.’ When people have no forum, they feel no one has any way to address the issues they care about. Neither my father or I would ever condone violence — the correct way to address violence is to understand what causes it,” Mr. King said in an interview.
“I believe a poverty czar would be a beginning step to once and for all address this vast issue that does more to divide our society than anything else. A poverty czar would mobilize our country and bring religious leaders, business leaders, community leaders and elected leaders to come up with a Marshall Plan to combat poverty,” he added. “The reality is that unless is there is someone who has a bully pulpit to focus on this vast issue across our nation, it’s not ever going to be addressed.”
The scion of the civil rights leader may find some unexpected common ground in the Republican Party, where Sen. Rand Paul has his own, albeit different, plan for fighting poverty.
Mr. Paul, Kentucky Republican, told The Times that he plans to make poverty a major priority in his presidential campaign, and that he already has begun working on his own plan, which he believes would help increase opportunity by decreasing regulation and taxes in areas with rampant unemployment.
“Addressing poverty should be a major part of the next president’s agenda,” the 2016 GOP candidate said in an interview. “I have introduced a plan for ‘Economic Freedom Zones’ that would greatly expand jobs and wealth in areas that are currently being left behind. In addition, I have been a champion for school choice, criminal justice reform and the restoration of the civil rights for nonviolent offenders to allow people a second chance. There is no evidence the war on poverty is being won. It is time for a new way.”
Mr. King’s push for “economic justice” essentially is a revival of his father’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, in which the late King traveled across America with a “multiracial army of the poor” to organize a march on Washington.
The march aimed to encourage Congress to pass an “economic bill of rights” for Americans in poverty. The late King revealed the architecture for his plan in his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: From Chaos to Poverty,” which was published shortly before his April 4, 1968, assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 2013 CBS News reported that 80 percent of U.S. adults face near-poverty and unemployment, and that America’s poor numbered 46.2 million. An Associated Press poll also found that more than 19 million white Americans fell below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, nearly twice the number of poor African-Americans.
President Obama addressed a May 12 gathering of faith leaders attending a poverty conference at Georgetown University, where he said the nation needs to pay more attention to the problem of poverty.
“Poverty is a subject we talk about mainly when tragic events, such as those we witnessed recently in Baltimore, grab our attention. Then we push it aside, we bury it. We say it’s not politically shrewd to talk about it,” the president said.
As part of his anti-poverty crusade, Mr. King is reaching out to all of the 2016 presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle. He says he already has spoken to representatives for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s and Mr. Paul’s campaigns.
He said poverty cuts across the political and racial divide, impacting whites and minorities with equal intensity.
“This has nothing to do with liberal or conservative, red or blue — it’s an issue that affects all Americans. It’s not an issue that should be seen as progressive or liberal, it’s an issue that every American should be concerned about,” Mr. King said. “This country is a great country, and it’s a country with incredible opportunity, but there are a number of Americans that cannot fulfill their potential and truly engage in the American dream.”
Mr. Paul has received praise for his anti-poverty efforts from NAACP acting President Lorraine Miller, and he has sponsored legislation with Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York to help transform the criminal justice system for people whom he sees as being stuck in a “cycle of poverty and incarceration.”
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Mrs. Clinton committed herself to creating an anti-poverty Cabinet position if elected. She promised to create such a position “solely and fully devoted to ending poverty as we know it, that will focus the attention of our nation on this issue and never let it go.”
“No more excuses, no more whining, but instead a concerted effort,” she said.
Some young voters are receptive to the anti-poverty message.
“An anti-poverty message is absolutely pivotal in this presidential campaign,” said Zach Wood, an admirer of the late King and D.C. resident entering his sophomore year at Williams College. “If you look at the numbers overall from the U.S. Census Bureau, 14.5 percent live below the poverty line, and the number that is even more stultifying is that nearly half of the country is two paychecks away from falling below the poverty line. I’m not of the opinion that poverty can be eradicated, but the goal is admirable in itself, because when America puts its mind to something, we get it done.”
Mr. King said that creating a perpetual welfare state is not the answer.
“I don’t think we can afford to just take care of people forever and forever. I think there is a better way to create opportunity so that more and more people can take care of their families and become valuable contributors to our society as opposed to being seen as those just living off our society,” he said. “I would say the majority of people do not want that existence but feel that they been have forced into that existence.”