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Child Watch® Column: "Where Do We Go From Here?"

Release Date: August 23, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

     --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., address at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

As the nation celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, many are discussing what Dr. King would say to the nation and world today and tell us to do. But his message to us today is as clear as it was fifty years ago if only we could hear, heed, and follow his warnings about what we need to do to make America America.

Just as Biblical Old and New Testament prophets were rejected, scorned, and dishonored in their own land in their times, so was Dr. King by many when he walked and worked among us. Now that he is dead, many Americans remember him warmly but have sanitized and trivialized his message and life. They remember Dr. King the great orator but not Dr. King the disturber of unjust peace. They applaud the Dr. King who opposed violence but not the Dr. King who called for massive nonviolent demonstrations to end war and poverty in our national and world house. They recite the “I Have a Dream” part of his August 1963 speech but ignore its main metaphor of the promissory note still bouncing at America’s bank of justice, waiting to be cashed by millions of poor and minority citizens. And while we love to celebrate his dream and great oratorical skills, we ignore his fears and repeated warnings about America’s misguided priorities and values. He worried that we were missing God’s opportunity to become a great and just nation by sharing our enormous riches with the poor and overcoming what he called the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism.

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 did nothing. 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 Dr. King’s death in 1968 when he was calling for a Poor People’s Campaign 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, almost half living in extreme poverty, and our GDP is three times larger, and shamefully the younger children are the poorer they are. One in three Black and Latino children are poor. National wealth and income inequality are at near record levels while hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, fear, and hopelessness stalk millions of children and adults across our land who have been left behind in our economy. Isn’t it time to ask ourselves again with urgency whether America is missing once again the great opportunity and mandate God has given us to be a beacon of hope and justice for the least among us, beginning with our children, who are the poorest Americans?

The day he was assassinated in Memphis Dr. King called his mother to give her the title of his next Sunday’s sermon. It was “Why America May Go to Hell.” In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King stated that America hadn’t yet committed to paying the real price—in actual dollars and cents—of equality: “The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities with whites.” But, he said, “the real cost lies ahead . . . The discount education given Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is far beyond integrating lunch counters.” He said the price would be great but so would the rewards. It would all come down to our will: “The great majority of Americans…are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.” That is the overarching issue our nation and every citizen must face today as we leave millions of children unprepared to become the competitive workers and military, education, economic, and diplomatic leaders of tomorrow.

In his last week of life Dr. King said to a group of close friends: “We fought hard and long, and I have never doubted that we would prevail in this struggle. Already our rewards have begun to reveal themselves. Desegregation…the Voting Rights Act…But what deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.” “What would you have us do?” one shocked friend asked. Dr. King answered: “I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.”

Dr. King knew then as we must know or learn today that our work was not done and that the successes of the Civil Rights Movement and integration were not alone doorways into a Promised Land. We were gaining access to a society riddled with poverty, inequality, violence, militarism, materialism, and greed. Dr. King made it very clear that he saw America and the world at a dangerous crossroads. A Civil Rights Movement stalled short of true equality without a parallel opening up of economic opportunity. Poverty at home and around the world that led Dr. King to call for nothing less than a national and worldwide revolution of values:

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy . . . A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will only be an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life.”

In our nation and world desperately hungering for moral example, change, and hope and leaders who put national and community good ahead of personal and political gain, Dr. King gave Americans a special charge: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values . . . There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood”—and sisterhood.

Fifty years later we must not give up on building a just America that ensures a level playing field for every child and person. We must not let anyone tell us that our rich nation’s vaults of justice and opportunity are bankrupt. And we must not tolerate any longer any resistance to creating jobs, jobs, jobs which pay enough to escape poverty, public and private sector, and providing the education and early childhood development supports every human being needs to survive and thrive. I hope we will commit ourselves on this fiftieth anniversary to building and sustaining a powerful transforming nonviolent movement to help America live up to its promises and forge the will to translate America’s dream into reality for all. Let’s honor Dr. King and save America’s future and soul by hearing, heeding, and following our greatest American prophet.

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 Friend at: September 10, 2013
The real American stories must continue to be told. Thank you for keeping the story of our American transformation alive and well. Dr. King and countless others made sacrifices to call our country to greatness; we must keep up the work because we have a ways to go. I am a mental health provider who works in urban schools daily and I know firsthand that working poor and struggling American families have less time to spend with their children. These children often lack the foundation for healthy social and emotional development. We must somehow provide essential before and afterschool programs to support these families. In addition, these children and their families need mentors and other supports to produce the healthy and creative human beings needed for a better American.

Submitted by Black Rooster at: August 30, 2013
Thanks for this article; so much truth, so much power in the delivery...I hope it is shared with many others.

Submitted by Gomer at: August 30, 2013
Realy we need to share worldwide this Dr King dream for justice and equal opportunity to every human being as God creation. Us as African, let's build our nations on the rock of justice, development and hope.

Submitted by Andy at: August 26, 2013
A very powerful statement on Dr. King's legacy and the multiple ways our nation has not yet lived up to his vital dream. It is our mission to not let the powers that be prevail and to make sure the poor and oppressed have a voice and a place at the table.

Submitted by Rev. Regina at: August 25, 2013
The message is profound. But the looming work that needs and must be done seems to be overwhelming.

Submitted by cspence at: August 25, 2013
Outstanding anaysis and call to all to continue to find ways to challenge the status quo and to seek justice in the many arenas where injustice prevails. The Spelman College Social Justice Fellows Program is attempting to train cohorts of young women who will become thought leaders in the fight for social justice and the creation and restoration of the notion of a "Beloved Community".

Submitted by MaggieC at: August 25, 2013
Thank you so much for this article. I was at the Poor Peoples' March. I didn't see Dr. King or hear him speak because I was helping a lady whose child was sick. It was really scary then to see all those people who had nothing. It is even scarier now. I lived in Anacostia, Washington, DC for 30 years. I loved it there. The people were wonderful to me and my family. Most of my friends,k who were white (like me) were afraid to come visit me. It was in SE DC that I found I had a deprived childhood. I grew up middle-class. I had everything I wanted, toys and such, but I always missed something. Then when I moved into the poorer black areas of Washington, DC (Shaw, Anacostia) I found what I was missing. A sense of family outside the nuclear family. The extended family. I was accepted almost immediately. That would not happen in the richer of the surrounding areas of Virginia and Maryland. I also saw the poverty and took people to the food banks when they needed to go. A couple of times I needed to go, and did. Everyone should be able to eat. Everyone should have a living wage that covers all of the year. Christmas turkeys are fine, but not nearly enough People are poor all year round and it's the children who suffer. Great column. Thanks for making it available.

Submitted by Greta at: August 24, 2013
thank you, Ms. Edelman, for your always wise remarks, and for pointing us again towards Dr. Martin Luther King's deep criticism, and judgment, on the values and structures underlying our society. No, we have not yet made a commitment to create the kind of world to which he called us.

Submitted by Peace First at: August 24, 2013
Truth has a ring to it that defies the bluster of the forces working to tear this nation apart. In today's march I saw our future in the eyes of the young people who will heed the messages they heard and carry the "dream" forward.

Submitted by msmajik at: August 24, 2013
Thank you from a child of the 60's!!

Submitted by Anonymous at: August 24, 2013

Submitted by dchirsh at: August 24, 2013
Marian - While I agree with your belief that children should be protected, I must disagree with your assertion that "guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family" is our moral obligation. Like many moderate-income earners, my husband and I decided we could only afford to support 2 children and utilized birth control methods to ensure that we did not have more. Do you honestly believe that it is our moral obligation to support every American family, regardless of how many children the parents decide to have ... or in many situations don't decide but have anyway? I don't want to live in a society that limits family size, but I do believe that it is every adult's moral obligation not to have more children than you can afford to support. Our society has become so politically-correct that we no longer hold citizens to a standard of responsibility for their own actions. Unfortunately, I believe that if we gave each American family $100,000, some would spend wisely and pull out of poverty while others would spend frivolously and return to poverty quickly.

Submitted by pete at: August 24, 2013
good article; good question

Submitted by Vernessa aka ILCO at: August 24, 2013
I read all of Ms Edelman's postings and as I sit in New Orleans with my heart aching for the children... This posting is indeed one of the most honest and direct!!! As the world alienated, my Paster Rev Dr Jeremiah Wright's quoted words from the pulpit ... Chickens are coming home to roost, you can see those words, were in alignment with Dr King's feelings in the 1968!!! I guess the truth hurts!!

Submitted by arylj at: August 23, 2013
Extremely uplifting on one hand; on the other terribly depressing to realize 50 years later the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Act Bill that and the battle continues.

Submitted by jst4horses at: August 23, 2013
I think that Martin Luther King was assassinated to make sure the Latino, White, and Black populations did not group together with Asians, and others who were starting to get a clue that it was not just civil rights, but something much bigger (like keeping people enslaved, one way or the other) that was at stake. I think this article makes it clear that Martin Luther King Jr had begun to realize there was a lot more to the real deal than just letting people have equality of color or race. It was the beginning of making corporations people, and the .03 the rulers of the world.

Submitted by letpeacereign at: August 23, 2013
Good places to start would be ending "stop and frisk,"ending our illegal wars, grounding the drones, and closing Gitmo. Our Arabic brothers and sisters are just as worthy of love and respect as those living here.

Submitted by zfree at: August 23, 2013
Mrs. Edelman, thank you for letting Dr. King speak for himself. I admire your work and am an ally in the effort to educate and liberate our children. I must question your conclusion. If America was a burning house in Kings day it must be a charred catcass unworthy of saving by now. Recent judicial decisions from the supreme court to Florida's acquital of Zimmerman it is beyond clear that America is not only destined for hell, it is a hell for yhose foolish enough to seek justice or solace here. It is time we turn our effotts to organizing for liberation, separation and the building of an African nation. Dr. King and the host of heroic ancestors from Garvey and beyond will join us in this righteous quest, anything less ignores the reality and is folly.

Submitted by Lorri at: August 23, 2013
and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14 Nehemiah is an AWESOME book in the bible. Chapter 9 speaks of the people confessing their sin. Verse 38 says Now because of all this we are making an agreement in writing; And on the sealed documents are the names of our leaders, our Levites and our priests. On this 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, we as a nation should confess our sin and our leaders should present a binding agreement to God that we as a nation will respect, love, serve, follow and obey the Lord Jesus Christ. It all begins with His followers. Will we have the courage to speak up and speak out? I see you do, Mrs. Edelman. Thank you for caring about the children. Respectfully in Jesus' name, Lorri Johnson

Submitted by Alan Bean at: August 23, 2013
Dr. King couldn't have set it better himself!