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King’s Message Today: Help Provide Basic Needs for All

This month, we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and applaud his philosophy of nonviolent social change. We also should be asking ourselves this question: What message does Dr. King’s legacy have for the leaders of our time?

For the Congressional Black Caucus, this perspective inspires our vision of America’s role in the world, as well as our mission of support for civil and human rights.

We live in a time when many nations have the capability to construct weapons of mass destruction. Peace, King would tell us, has become a precondition to our continued survival.

“World peace through nonviolent means is neither absurd nor unattainable,” he observed after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. “All other methods have failed. Thus we must begin anew. Nonviolence is a good starting point.”

King would caution America’s current leadership that our highest national principles and the geopolitical realities we face demand less reliance upon military power and greater investment in a foreign policy that would make this nation a full partner in the world’s struggle against poverty, violence and disease.

“Peace,” King often declared, “is more than the absence of violent conflict. Peace is the presence of justice.”

In his time, the man whom we honor this month understood the interconnected challenges to humanity that racism, excessive materialism and militarism pose.

“When we solve these three great problems — racial injustice around the world, poverty and war — we will have squared our moral progress with our scientific progress,” he predicted. “And, more importantly, we will have learned the practical art of living in harmony.”

Today, leaders of both major political parties are beginning to recognize the need for an expanded national agenda of racial and ethnic reconciliation.

King would agree that enacting and adequately funding federal election reform — as well as expanded legal protections against discrimination, hate crimes and inequitable sentencing by our courts — would constitute important first steps toward that unifying national objective.

His vision for America, however, transcended these long-standing civil rights goals.

We should never forget the Poor People’s Campaign that he led — nor the fact that he died while trying to help sanitation workers achieve a living wage.

King’s legacy to the America of our time calls out for prompt and constructive action to transform the “human rights” that are central to our lives into civil rights protected by federal law.

Along with our progressive allies in Congress, the 39 members of the Congressional Black Caucus are committed to translating that message into a national human rights agenda. We were elected to respond to the concerns that all Americans feel about their health care, safety, freedom and economic opportunity — and to do all that we can to protect them against the continuing threats to their civil rights and freedoms.

King’s vision supports our work to enact federal legislation that would assure universal access to affordable health insurance, provide prescription drug coverage for our most vulnerable citizens, guarantee a comprehensive patients’ bill of rights and eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination in federally supported health care programs.

Our public safety initiatives would balance expanded protection against terrorist attacks and violent crime with increased federal assistance for effective programs to help nonviolent drug offenders regain control of their lives.

We will continue to oppose legislation that fails to protect the civil liberties of the American people — and federal judicial nominees who lack a proven record of support for civil rights.

King argued that economic opportunity and security form the foundation of our ability to exercise and enjoy these other human rights. That reality is why the Congressional Black Caucus strongly supports increased federal aid for public education, a higher minimum wage, and a combination of extended unemployment compensation and job training for Americans who are out of work through no fault of their own.

It is also why we are convinced that this nation must expand access to affordable housing, investment capital and technological training; invest in rebuilding America’s cities and fairly support our family farms; strengthen our system of retirement security; better protect our environment; and reduce our dependence upon foreign oil.

Although the legislative agenda of the Congressional Black Caucus is an ambitious one, our priorities are goals that the American people need — and deserve — their government to accomplish. We also believe that these objectives are squarely within King’s vision for American society.

If King were alive today, Georgia Rep. John Lewis (D), has observed, “He would be in the forefront of reminding the government that its first concern should be the basic needs of its citizens — not just black Americans but all Americans — for food, shelter, health care, education, jobs, livable incomes and the opportunity to realize their full potential as individual people.”

That message — we are convinced — is Dr. King’s message to the leaders of our time.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

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