WASHINGTON (NNPA) – As millions commemorate the 79th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jan. 21, orators and community leaders across the nation will point to the historic presidential campaigns of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as a sign that Dr. King's dream is becoming real. But, his oldest son and others who marched with Dr. King this week cautioned observers against becoming so fixated on the candidates that they forget about the issues that would still cause Dr. King pain. Others who marched with Dr. King echoed these sentiments in interviews with the NNPA News Service this week as they discussed current events in America that would cause the slain civil rights leader to applaud and other issues that he would lament.
"He would be the saddest to know that we're at war," says Dr. Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women and a peer of Dr. King and the Big Six civil rights leaders. "In his last speech from Riverside church in New York at the time of the Vietnam War, he said, 'Stop the bombing,' Height recalls. "But, I think that he would be equally sad to see that we have so many people in poverty."
The U. S. Census Bureau reports that the number of Americans living in poverty is around 36 million, with African-Americans remaining nearly twice the national rate at around 25 percent.
The Rev. Dr. Willie T. Barrow, 82, a long-time board member of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and a behind-the-scenes organizer for King, says she thinks the health care crisis – often a result of poverty - would be foremost on his mind.
"He would be sad to see that [47 million] people don't have health care." At the same time, she said, he would be pleased to see that so many Black youth are actively involved in civil rights, such as the Jena Six marches, as well as involved in the Democratic campaigns for the presidency. "I think the Obama campaign is really showing that," she says.
Despite the excitement surrounding the candidacies, economic issues are foremost, says the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who marched alongside King and is considered one of his lieutenants.
"I preached at Ebenezer today at his church here in Atlanta and I spent most of his last birthday with him at his church. His own last birthday was spent organizing the Poor People's campaign and preparing the march to Washington to engage in national civil disobedience," says Jackson in a Sunday evening interview. "Forty years later, we've seen the most wholesale shift of resources ever with losses, taking our land, taking our houses through these mortgages foreclosures and the sub-prime scam."
Jackson, who has announced a Jan. 22 march on the Department of Housing and Urban Development at noon, says he is certain that Dr. King would be crying out on behalf of the victims of defaulted sub-prime loans.
"He would be fighting therefore to save people's homes, to restructure loans and to repossess homes. I'm sure he would. And he'd be fighting to not only end the war in Iraq, but to redirect the resources from the war in Iraq to build America's cities, bridges collapsing in Minnesota and levies collapsing in New Orleans, obviously the infrastructure is crumbling while we keep giving tax cuts to the rich and getting in deeper in debt with China."
Jackson said that on the other hand, King would be genuinely pleased with South Carolina, where the race between Obama and Clinton will next be spot-lighted.
"I think he'd be proud of just the real competition. Forty years ago when he died, we'd just gotten the right to vote for two years. And now in South Carolina, that vote could very well determine the launching pad for the next president. So, the empowerment of the masses of us, just the real talent would impress him."
Still, King's hopes would be that the candidates would do something for the poor, says Height: "His last effort on earth was to march on Washington to force the government to respond to poor people."