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King Might Picket Obama for Failing the Black Poor

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Jan 18, 2010

In a blistering speech to hundreds at a North Carolina church in March 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., vowed to make America see poor people. King vowed that he would disrupt Washington and other cities if Lyndon Johnsons administration did not make a massive effort to end the gaping income, wealth, and job inequality between the rich and the poor. Johnson was a liberal Democrat, and his administration arguably did more for civil rights and the poor than any other administration in American history. It didnt matter. King targeted him anyway.

Kings beef with Johnson was that, despite well-intentioned efforts, his bevy of civil rights bills, and Great Society anti-poverty programs, the poor still languished deep at the bottom of Americas economic barrel. Kings anti-poverty crusade quickly fell victim to Johnsons Vietnam War ramp up, increased shrill attacks from conservatives that the war on poverty was a scam to reward deadbeats and loafers, and sharp budget cutbacks. If King could target Johnson for failing the poor, then its no stretch to imagine that he would target Obama, too.

Obama would be an even easier target than Johnson. On the eve of the King national holiday in 2009 and Obama's inauguration, the Boston-based research and economic justice advocacy group United for a Fair Economy released its sixth annual King Day report. For the sixth time, it found that the disparities in income, wealth, employment, quality and availability of housing, decent schools, and health care between blacks, other minorities and whites continued to bulge. Countless government reports and studies, and the National Urban League's 2008 State of Black America report also found that discrimination and poverty are still towering barriers for millions of poor blacks. On the eve of this years King national holiday and virtually a year to the date after Obamas inauguration, the group released its seventh annual report. Its even worse than last year: One out of three blacks is poor. More blacks are jobless, uninsured, in prisons and jails, homeless, have lost homes, and seen their income and assets shrink lower than a year ago.

There was a moment of hope during Obamas campaign. Obama thundered in a April 2007 speech that America had failed the poor, and especially the black poor. But Obama didnt utter another word about poverty for the rest of his campaign.

As president, Obama, like most leading Democrats, has been close-mouthed for a reason. The poor dont have an active and vocal political lobby to fight for their interests.

After King's murder in 1968, the word "poverty" not only disappeared from the nations table, it became a dirty word. The poor became a political embarrassment. Their existence flew in the face of the embedded laissez faire notion that the poor in America are poor because of their personal failings, not because anything is wrong with the system. Conservatives vehemently oppose spending endless dollars on job and skills training, education, health and expanded child care programs to assure jobs for all.

The view that government should play no, or at best a minimal, role in assisting the poor creeps through in Obamas speeches when he touts personal responsibility as the key to uplift. He made it plain to the Congressional Black Caucus in December that he would propose no special programs, initiatives, or boost funding to tackle the brutal joblessness among blacks, especially young black males.

He didnt earmark any dollars specifically for anti-poverty programs in his economic stimulus package. Despite Obamas tout that the stimulus created and saved 2 million jobs theres absolutely no evidence that the dollars created any new jobs for the black poor in any substantial numbers. And there is much evidence that the stimulus dollars have gone everywhere but to the nations inner cities.

The reason that Obama even briefly talked about the plight of the poor was because black and Latino political activists pounded on the Democrats after the Katrina debacle to make poverty an issue. The reason he chose to talk about poverty in April 2007 was that was the month of Kings assassination. Paying lip service to poverty was more a ceremonial and political tribute to Kings martyrdom than any sincere intent to do something about poverty.

Obamas preoccupation with health care reform, waging two wars, and the fight against terrorism makes it even less likely that hell address the plight of the black poor anytime soon, if at all. King likely would have been dismayed by that; so dismayed that Obama might well have seen King marching in front of the White House door.

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