50 years ago, I was 19 and a sophomore at Santa Clara University, aware of but not involved in the Civil Rights movement and the struggles of the poor and minorities in our country. As a young man who could be drafted, I was more concerned about Vietnam. There were very few black families in my hometown. I had no black friends, and as for my poor friends, they were mixed in with everyone else in the public schools I attended as I grew up. I was blind to any differences, but I’m sure they weren’t. There were “rundown” neighborhoods. The hometown culture as I knew it associated these areas with a lack of self-initiative and concern for the community. My assessment looking back is that poverty was viewed as the result of individual failings, not the failure of society to offer the promise of freedom and opportunity to all of its citizens.
I’ve learned through the years how easy it is to judge those who live in poverty. I’ve learned that I was born into a privileged life because I was white, middle-class, and given the loving support and opportunities in life that my parents provided. I’ve learned not all my friends had these things. Many of them simply vanished from my life after high school, and didn’t go to college because they couldn’t qualify or weren’t motivated by their family culture. I also know that many of them have overcome these early disadvantages and led productive and loving lives, and that they had to work for it a lot harder at it than I did.
The fact remains that poverty continues in our country at alarming rates, and growing. Attitudes toward the poor seem even more callous than they were in 1963 because we ought to know better. Whether we as a society should continue to provide programs that help people climb out of poverty is questioned, and, public schools have been on the chopping block. Minimal care for those who are physically or mentally unable to care for themselves has been cut back drastically by the government in recent years.
In my view, we are a long way from the fulfillment of MLK’s dream and the promises of our Constitution for all Americans. We have no obligation to create a society dependent upon the government for a successful life, but we do have an obligation to provide the opportunity required for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. In an important way, the Food Bank Coalition fights for opportunity for people – with the help of our donors. At least our recipients and their children have healthy food available to them so that they can reap the most benefit from school and jobs. But even access to healthy food is on the chopping block in Washington on this day as we observe the memory of Martin Luther King’s Dream speech. Let us continue to struggle for that dream until it becomes a reality.