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Martin Luther King Jr’s universal message | Kevin Powell

That Dr King fought not just for civil rights for African Americans but for social justice for all keeps his mission compellingly alive

Much has transpired in America these past few weeks leading to this annual recognition of Martin Luther King Jr’s life. I’ve cringed as I’ve listened to one Republican presidential candidate after another diss those struggling financially by saying there is “class envy”, that the wealthy are who they are simply because they’ve worked harder. I had flashbacks to Ronald Reagan and George W Bush when some of these current Republican standard-bearers used thinly veiled racist and classist sentiments to blame, conveniently, blacks and cash-strapped Americans for our nation’s deep-rooted social ills.

I am middle-class now, but I come from generations of poverty dating to American slavery in the 1800s. My mother, with her eighth-grade education, raised me alone on welfare, government cheese and, yes, food stamps, as she sought jobs with a livable wage. My mother labored very hard, right until her retirement a few years ago, but she never earned an income above the poverty line. Had it not been for Dr King, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, the anonymous soldiers of the Civil Rights movement and key government programs resulting from their efforts, I am positive I wouldn’t have had the kind of life, or educational and employment opportunities, that I have had. I’m not even sure if I’d be alive today.

Dr King spoke loud and often, in the final days of his life, about economic injustice, about poverty. When he realized the Vietnam war had no end in sight and was redirecting monies that could be spent on transforming the lives of millions of Americans – namely, the poor and the middle class – he courageously condemned that military build-up, although distracters slammed him as foolish and unpatriotic.

But what is “foolish” or “unpatriotic” about American working families having job options, decent and affordable housing, quality schools and the opportunities to have opportunities? Very wisely, Dr King labeled the last act of his epic but short life the “Poor People’s Campaign” because he understood that while racism was (and is) a great oppressive force in our land, what could bring us together was the very basic understanding that no one should struggle mightily just to survive. That financial hardship is financial hardship regardless of your color or creed.

For sure, it is not just some conservative Republicans who need to hang their heads in shame as we honor Dr King today. A number of my fellow Democrats should stand right next to them and ask themselves why, for example, they too have participated in the slow deterioration of our political system by allowing campaigns and political seats to be controlled by the highest bidder; and why most of them have remained largely silent as banks and corporations perpetually get bailed out as everyday Americans languish in financial ruin. Or why more Democrats have not wholeheartedly embraced the Occupy Wall Street movement, as I am sure Dr King would have.

Indeed, if there is any act in the decades since MLK last walked this earth that is a direct link to his crusade around income inequality, corporate greed and how wealth is distributed, it is, without question, the Occupy movement.

But that would also mean our acknowledging reports of new jobs does not erase the millions upon millions of Americans habitually looking for employment. Nor does it erase the homeless tent communities in Oahu, Hawaii or low-income “skid row” in downtown Los Angeles. Or the jarring number of violent economic crimes happening in my home city, New York.

People are scared, desperate and, in many cases, hopeless. President Barack Obama is not Martin Luther King Jr (what US elected official could ever be, seriously, given the constraints of being in public office?), but he still provides a glimmer of hope to the most marginalized Americans, which is why so many still love President Obama so dearly. He won against all odds, thus we feel we can, too.

But if we truly believe in the unfiltered messages of Martin Luther King Jr, then we know this is ultimately bigger than Republicans and Democrats, and who is in the White House on any given day. It is actually about the kind of powers Dr King urged us to use: one where we the people practice what he termed “a kind of dangerous unselfishness”, so that our lives are not merely for ourselves, but for others, too. Where we are bridge-builders and not bridge-destroyers. Where we serve others all the time, not merely on the King holiday.

And where those things used to divide one human from another, used to create hate where there must be love, are no longer tolerated. Neither from ourselves, and nor from those who seek to represent us politically. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds