The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shifted his focus in the dwindling years of his life to an audacious, but achievable goal: ending poverty in the United States.
In his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King argued that the United States must change its attitude and approach toward the treatment of its poor citizens. He reasoned that since poverty knew no racial boundaries, he couldn’t limit his call for congressional action to assist only black Americans.
“In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out,” King wrote in 1967. “There are twice as many white poor as [black] poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and [black] alike.”
This was a radical—and unpopular—change for the preacher who is best known for pushing voting, employment, housing, and other civil rights for black Americans. At this point in his career, during what would become the final months of his life, he was widening his field of vision to seek an end to poverty among all Americans.
It’s appropriate as we pause to celebrate this year’s national holiday in memory of King’s 81st birthday to recall the relevance of his final struggle to the contemporary fight against poverty.