What Would Martin Luther King Do?
In March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson—who had successfully launched important voting rights and anti-poverty initiatives—under pressure from the military decided to send additional troops to join the more than half a million already in Vietnam. There they would fight and eventually lose a war that cost the United States $100 billion. That same month, the bipartisan Kerner Commission, appointed by Johnson in 1967 in response to riots in dozens of American cities, concluded that a massive national investment, estimated at $80 billion to $100 billion in employment, education, welfare and housing, was essential to prevent our nation from becoming “two societies, one black and one white—separate and unequal.” The commission briefly considered recommending reducing and reallocating resources from the war in Vietnam but decided that would be too controversial.
Fearing the political costs of losing the war in Vietnam and facing deepening racial division and white backlash at home, Johnson ignored the Kerner Commission report and, in a televised address to the nation on March 31, announced he would not seek a second term as president. Five days later, on April 4, Martin Luther King Jr., who had praised the Kerner report, was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to support the struggle of striking sanitation workers.
A year earlier, in his famous Riverside Church sermon, “A Time to Break Silence,” which he delivered on April 4, 1967, King carefully—yet controversially—explained why he opposed the Vietnam War, in part because of U.S. support for France keeping Vietnam as a colony. He spoke about the triple threats of racism, poverty and militarism. Reflecting his view that the war threatened Johnson’s “Great Society” initiatives, King declared, “There was hope for the poor—both black and white—through the poverty program, then came the buildup in Vietnam.”
On the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report, several publications reported on some progress over the past five decades but also catalogued conditions that have remained the same or gotten worse. Among the most revealing and troubling indicators is that, while the overall percentage of Americans living in poverty has remained about the same since 1968, the percentage of American children living in poverty and the percentage of people living in “deep poverty” (on incomes less than half the poverty level) have both increased. Shockingly, the United States has one of the highest rates of child poverty of any developed country. While percentages of black and Hispanic children in poverty are higher than those of whites, one-third of all American children living in poverty are white.
Fred Harris, the sole surviving member of the Kerner Commission, and Alan Curtis, president and CEO of the Eisenhower Foundation, have edited a new book, “Healing Our Divided Society,” an updated review of the challenges our country faces and what can be done. The book includes two dozen articles by prominent economists, educators, journalists, sociologists and others, with recommendations for major national investments in economic development, employment, education, health care, housing and neighborhoods. It includes critical articles addressing crime prevention, criminal justice policy and the need for effective messaging to engage the media, something the Kerner Commission failed to do 50 years ago.
Clearly, substantial investments also are needed to address the national opioid crisis, the challenge of global warming and the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure. This Eisenhower Foundation book is even more convincing and useful because it includes several evidence-based essays documenting which federal programs actually have worked, which ones haven’t, and why.
Where this book fails is in not addressing our country’s exceptionally high level of military spending (roughly half of the federal government’s discretionary spending) and factors in U.S. foreign policy that, since the end of World War II, have gotten our country into wars we later regret. Currently, U.S. military spending is higher than that of the next eight countries combined. Ironically, the Eisenhower Foundation book totally ignores President Dwight Eisenhower’s wise moral insight that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
There is no use pretending: If we are serious about healing our divided society as King envisioned, we need a revolution in our cultural values and a radical shift in our national priorities, away from violence and militarism and toward nonviolence and effective policies and programs to meet people’s real needs for living wage employment, housing, health care and education. Recent mass marches led by women and young people, combined with voter registration campaigns, offer hope that our country can make the right critical choices.