For undergraduate studies, I attended Morris Brown College, one of the institutions that make up the Atlanta University Center. Although I arrived in Atlanta 21 years after Dr. King’s death, his presence was still deeply felt all over the city.
In fact, my first real involvement celebrating MLK Day took place in Atlanta.
Much of the sentiment surrounding his legacy centered on his work to assist poor people. Dr. King understood that the country would be stronger if it inspired poor people to higher heights.
We can use some of Dr. King’s resolve today.
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We should not consider it fate that scores of people, mainly black and brown people, would live in abject poverty or in neighborhoods wrought with gloom and doom. This mindset contributes to the fact that, in spite of countless years of work to level the playing field, the field remains noticeably uneven.
I believe that we have not properly assessed the accounts of history in our efforts to address the shortcomings of the present day. We are quick to blame today’s citizens for the failings of yesteryear.
You and I did not determine the neighborhood or the home our parents brought us to at the time of our birth. We must resolve in our collective psyche that history played an important role in that determination.
When history is truly considered, we discover that the winners’ circle has not been drawn wide enough. An honest reflection on the past will also cause us to conclude that it was a collective effort that propelled America into what it is today. Those who have realized a semblance of success have done so with the help of others.
Our aim as a country should be that of collective prosperity.
America’s economic well-being lies in how it defines poverty and how it treats those who are impoverished. A shift in how we view poverty can serve as the linchpin for a better tomorrow. Those who are poor are not only blamed for the condition in which they find themselves, but are often treated as less than human because of their circumstances. The end result is a people void of hope and negated the chance to support themselves. What is left are communities, many teeming with immense but untapped talents.
This creates, in some, a sense of hopelessness.
I believe that a hopeless person is also a dangerous person. I also believe that individuals and communities respond internally to how they are treated externally. Tell a people that they aren’t valuable or important and, in time, far too many of them begin to believe it.
Might this be the cause for the immeasurable bloodshed we have witnessed in cities like Chicago, New Orleans and right here in Kansas City? We must provide more opportunities for poor communities to operationalize their talents and intelligences. Many of our communities simply lack hope.
In the end, poverty is far more than a lack of income or a shortage of resources; it represents an absence of compassion on the part of those who are in a position to help. Much of our national response to poverty has been a business-as-usual approach, where we proceed through life as though hardship and despair are normal aspects of life.
I understand that everyone is not going to be a millionaire, but this should not justify destitution for some in our communities. This very reason is why Dr. King trained his attention on the Poor People’s Campaign prior to his death. Again, he understood that, together, the country would be much stronger if it inspired poor people to higher aspirations.
Rodney D. Smith is interim director of academic support and mentoring and the International Center for Supplemental Instruction at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.