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Child Watch® Column: "How We Can Truly Honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."

Release Date: January 18, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

In his last Sunday sermon at Washington National Cathedral, Dr. King retold the parable of the rich man Dives who ignored the poor and sick man Lazarus who came every day seeking crumbs from Dives’ table. Dives went to hell, Dr. King said, not because he was rich but because he did not realize his wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf separating him from his brother and allowed Lazarus to become invisible. He warned this could happen to rich America, “if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.”

At his death in 1968, when he was calling with urgency for an end to poverty in our nation, there were 25.4 million poor Americans including 11 million poor children and our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $4.13 trillion. Today there are 46.2 million poor people including 16.1 million poor children and our GDP is three times larger. Twenty million of our neighbors are living in extreme poverty including 7.3 million children. Disgracefully children are the poorest age group in America and the younger they are the poorer they are and one in four preschool children is poor. More than one in three Black children and the same proportion of Latino children are poor. Children have suffered most since the recession began.

  • The number of poor children – 16.1 million – exceeds the entire combined populations of Haiti and Liberia, two of the poorest countries on earth.
  • The number of extremely poor children – 7.3 million – in our nation is greater than the population of Sierra Leone.
  • The number of poor children under five – 5.0 million – exceeds the entire population of the state of South Carolina or Louisiana or Alabama.

I have no doubt that Dr. King would be mounting a nonviolent poor people campaign to end rampant hunger, homelessness, and poverty today.

Let’s honor Dr. King by our committed action to end child poverty and close the morally obscene gulf between rich and poor in our nation where the 400 highest income earners made as much as the combined tax revenues of 22 state governments with 42 million citizens in 2008, and the wealthiest top 1 percent hold more net wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. The rich don’t need another tax break and they need to give back some of their unfair share of our nation’s tax subsidies, loopholes and bailouts to feed and house and educate our children and employ their parents.

Let’s honor and follow Dr. King by naming and changing the continuing racial disparities, undergirded by poverty, that place one in three Black and one in six Hispanic boys born in 2001 at risk of prison in their lifetimes. Incarceration is the new American apartheid. Let’s reroute our children into a pipeline to college and productive work to compete with children from China and India.

Let’s honor and follow Dr. King by speaking truth to power and demanding justice for poor and vulnerable children with urgency and persistence and effective nonviolent direct actions to bring our nation back from the brink of self destruction fueled by the unbridled greed of the few and a military budget that dwarfs our early childhood development budget where the real security of our nation lies.

Let’s honor and follow Dr. King by stopping the resurgence of racial and income segregation in our schools, unfair treatment of children of color with zero tolerance school discipline and special education practices that push them out of school and towards prison, and efforts to undermine the hard earned right to vote. Let’s not return to Jim Crow shenanigans that strangled our democracy far too long.

Let’s honor and follow Dr. King by building a beloved community in America where all have enough to eat, a place to sleep, enough work at decent wages to support a family, buy a home, raise children, and send them to public schools that empower children with hope, confidence and skills for the future.

Let’s truly honor Dr. King by transforming our education system that sentences millions of children to social and economic death by failing to prepare them and our country for the future. That a majority of all children in all income and racial groups and seventy-six percent of Black and Hispanic children cannot read or compute at grade level in fourth and eighth grades is a threat to America’s future economic and military strength.

Let’s honor Dr. King by ensuring every child’s safety and right to live by ending the epidemic gun violence in our nation that has snuffed out more than 1.3 million American lives since he and Robert Kennedy were killed by guns in 1968 – including the lives of approximately 148,000 children and teens. That is 7,400 classrooms of 20 children. Let’s honor Dr. King by standing up and doing whatever is required for as long as needed to break the political grip of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their allies who seek to add more guns to the approximately 300 million in circulation and continuing production and sales of assault weapons and high volume ammunition magazines that should not be in the hands of civilians.

The day after Dr. King was shot, I went into riot torn Washington, D.C. neighborhoods and schools urging children not to loot, get arrested and ruin their futures. A young Black boy about 12 looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Lady, what future? I ain’t got no future. I ain’t got nothing to lose.” Let us follow Dr. King by proving that boy’s truth wrong in our militarily powerful, materially rich, but too spiritually poor nation.

Dr. King is not coming back. It’s up to us to redeem the soul of America. He told us what to do. Let’s do it.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Sapet at: July 30, 2013
Let us also remember the extreme poverty of our Native AMerican Brothers and SIsters---all our children need faithful caring adults, food, clothing, shelter, love and education. In the spirit of Dr. King--and John Lewis, and Marian Wright Edelman--all god's children! Many thanks, CHildren's Defense Fund and al defenders of children!

Submitted by Jana at: February 5, 2013
Bravo! We must not forget the fierce urgency of now!

Submitted by mitch at: January 22, 2013
Thank you! I do think the time has come to pick-up Dr. King's campaign against poverty and the poor people's campaign with a massive march on washington. Does anyone know of groups that are working on such a thing?

Submitted by Junebug at: January 22, 2013
While there are still racial injustices in American, I think we have made significant advances in opening public accommodations, etc. to the point that we need to really focus on why the majority of blacks are not taking advantage of these opportunities, and opting to drop out of school, get pregnant and be content with food stamps and welfare. When 47% of black males drop out of school, 70% of children are born out of wedlock, where we know that they are 5 times more likely to grow up on poverty, black males kill other black males at a rate 7 times higher than white males kill white males... We need to take a look inside and ask what can WE do to stop this. We need our institutions, especially our churches, which played a key role in Martin Luther King's non-violent movement, to step up. We can't continue to black the "white" establishment, or the "rich" people for problems such as this. We need leadership that says our families need to come together and raise our children, educate our children, nourish them at home. How many mother's boyfriends are raping and killing their children in the black community in the course of one year. It has to be very high as these stories are always making the headlines. We have a black president who is absolutely wonderful; we have black millionaires that are a growing class; we have made strides in sports that are beyond imagination, but the masses are being left further, and further behind. Black leadership is going to have to address these tough issues. I don't think whites will fully deal with the real issues for fear of being called "racist". The black church played a key role by promoting its brand of hope and faith that allowed our ancestors to do so much with so little. We must find our way back to this place. I have four young adult children (3 boys and 1 daughter) and they have all finished college with wonderful job opportunities, but my wife and I worked hard to raise them, protect them, and give them the kind of Christian education (or whatever your faith may be) to respect themselves and others that would allow for them to live as tax paying citizens in the greatest democracy on earth. I don't know who will read this, but I hope some reasonable black people can come together, without the intent of getting national publicity, but to brainstorm the issues behind the alarming statistics affecting our communities. There are real lives and people behind these statistics, and they mean more hard times for African Americans in the future if we don't find a way to address them. God bless.

Submitted by Anonymous at: January 22, 2013
We should all be thankful for the achievements that Dr. King did for all of us. From the words he said and from all that he accomplished, you know that he cared about every man, woman and child. He understood what life was all about and worked to see justice. Dr. King was a wonderful man, working always for the benefit of making life better. will always be remembered for all the steps he took to make the lives of people better. The best way to honor him, is to continue his work.

Submitted by Dr. Clement E. Glenn at: January 21, 2013
Dear Ms. Edelman, thanks so very much for your informative and inspiring message. I just want to add that it is true that Dr. King told us what do, but his team members never followed up to show us as a people HOW TO DO IT. This is where Black leadership has failed Black America. We continue to tell our people what to, but at the same time continue to not show us how to do it! In my conclusion, it is this dramatic change that must take place in this the "Societal Needs" area of our nation of states and communities. Our teachers must be prepared in a manner that allows them to effectively and correctly answer our children and students "WHY" questions, and our leaders must be prepared in a manner that allows them to effectively and honestly answer our parents and adults "HOW TO" questions. For more dialog, please contact me at: Thanks for listening with your heart and head!

Submitted by plm at: January 21, 2013
Let us put ourselves in the shoes of hungry,poor people and feel their suffering; wake up from our slumber of selfishness and share part of what we have with the needy and enjoy the inner peace that emerges from within; the one that cannot be bought through through any other means.

Submitted by shannondale at: January 21, 2013
A beautifully written, factually correct, and ultimately bewildering statement on what continues to be a profound national disgrace. What's missing, as always in such pieces, is any clear sense of just who this "us" is who is being urged to "do it." And, of course, there is corresponding program or plan for that "us" not only should be doing, but also should be judged by if, say, it fails, succeeds, or, more likely in such a case, sputters along with oodles of rhetorical concern, even support, but provides little or no help to the adults or juveniles who will be wrecked spiritually--and physically--without it, like that 12-year old child. Who should be "doing"? What should they be "doing"? And how does anyone (or anything, such as intelligent legislation) get them to do it? As usual upon reading essays like this, and reflecting on such questions, I end in despair. Just like that child. No bull now: how can such despair be overcome?

Submitted by Hopefull at: January 20, 2013
Wonderful column! This gun violence makes me sick. I pray this nation will do the right thing and support revamped gun laws and support education for all.

Submitted by Fred at: January 20, 2013
Martin Luther King wanted to abolish poverty in the U.S. This task needs to be accomplished

Submitted by (none) at: January 20, 2013
And excellent letter. We do need to reach out to those who feel worthless and Mrs. Edelman is doing a great job to make that happen.

Submitted by RJF at: January 20, 2013
Many Americans seem to equate waving the American flag with "patriotism". Mrs. Edelman's column speaks so eloquently--to what we, as a nation, need to do in order to justify the existence of our name: The United States of America. This is what I would call real PATRIOTISM, because Mrs. Edelman challenges us all to have compassion and to take action for our fellow Americans who are in such dire need (I'll include Native Americans in this group, as well...) and also for our country as a whole, because what she describes is not true to what America is all about!

Submitted by catdaddi at: January 20, 2013
no truer words were ever spoken. Marian,is truly GREAT, because she has served unstintly.

Submitted by Kathleen at: January 20, 2013
You are so right about every thing you said, very well stated. Dr. King would be proud to read this, and heartened to know that we have not forgotten him or his legacy for America. Sometimes these statistics are overwhelming for us, and especially as parents. I had to support my African-American husband and son for ten years on very low income due to my husband's military service-connected disability which prevented him from working. My son struggles to get through college with two 100% disabled parents as I am no longer able to work after a terrible fall down a flooded escalator in a local public transit station while commuting home from work. We struggle daily to put food on the table, and will never forget Dr. King's greatness and strength. We have not lost our faith in America, and will continue to strive for a better future!

Submitted by cauzjoy at: January 19, 2013
This government has been corrupted and the "system" ruined. It's time for EVOLUTION NOW!

Submitted by Winnie at: January 19, 2013
Marian WRight Edelman is alway imperessive and right on.

Submitted by Gerry at: January 19, 2013
Marian Wright Edelman is my Dr. MLK, Jr. Your column is beautiful and so prophetic. can our US Congress understand what all of us in our hearts understand? Are they so callous and intransigent that they don't/won't see the need for early childhood education? The ballot box is still the best remedy.

Submitted by chris and family at: January 19, 2013
This is great truth shared, and we can all do at least something to help in this endeavor.

Submitted by bonpidge at: January 19, 2013
Wonderful! I heard what you said today on MSNBC. You are so right about all of this.

Submitted by Lindy at: January 19, 2013
What Ms Edleman wrote in this article really touched a sensitive issue for me. She is an amazing visionary and carrying Dr King's vision and cause to eliminate poverty and poor education that plagues Blacks and Hispanics. I have experienced some poverty, the first time in my life, in the last year and I have now stepped in the same footsteps of the millions of impoverished people in America. Being a white woman, I'm changing my situation, but Brown and Black people don't have the opprotuities to get out of the rut. I also give my support to banning assult guns that do nothing but kill people. Ms Edleman and Dr King you have my 100 per cent support.