Opinion Columns & Blogs

Look to King’s words for leadership

On Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Kansas congressional delegation took to social media to commemorate Dr. King, posting photos of themselves volunteering and sharing quotes from the civil rights movement leader. Although Sens. Moran and Roberts and Reps. Estes, Marshall, Jenkins and Yoder may believe they are supporters of King, we can be certain that if King were alive today, he would be a fierce critic of each of these politicians.

We know this because he told us so, right here in Kansas, in his final university speech in 1968.

In this last university address, at Kansas State, King denounced those claiming to support his cause who opposed increasing federal spending to “eradicate slums” and “guarantee an annual income” for poor Americans. He declared that what was needed in America was the legislation of social and economic rights — “better things” than integration or voting rights — and that those who did not advocate for such policies did not support “genuine equality for the black man.”

But standing in the way, King lamented, is a government beholden to “strengthening the military industrial complex” and maintaining “economic conditions that take necessity from the many to give luxury to the few,” as well as the belief among “unfeeling, insensitive whites” that poor, black Americans simply need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

King planned to overcome these barriers with a “massive action program.” He would shut down Washington, D.C., with an enormous demonstration of civil disobedience, strikingly similar to the protests Americans watched on television in 2017 as patients and healthcare professionals were arrested by Capitol Police in their demonstrations against the Republican Party’s tax bill and its attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid.

Yet it was the Kansas members of Congress who professed their admiration for King last week who were the very targets of these King-inspired protests. Sens. Moran and Roberts and Reps. Estes, Marshall, Jenkins, and Yoder have all voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a suitable replacement, imperiling the health care of tens of millions of Americans. Weeks ago, each of these members of Congress voted for a tax bill that will cause the single largest transfer of wealth to the richest Americans in U.S. history. And now, their party is eager to slash spending for the kind of federal health care and anti-poverty programs King sought to expand. These policies are antithetical to King’s. They threaten to exacerbate poverty rather than eradicate it.

But perhaps our Kansas politicians do truly wish to be the protagonists in King’s vision for a better nation. If so, the time to act is now. Their colleagues are calling for deep cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, SNAP, and other programs vital to the health and freedom of our nation’s poorest people. They should publicly oppose these cuts.

King concluded to Kansans, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular. He must take it because conscience tells him that he is right. And that is where I stand today.” If these politicians wish to stand with King, then they must stand with and protect America’s poor.

Garrett Wilkinson, a senior at K-State, is a 2018 U.S. Marshall Scholar and visiting undergraduate at Harvard Medical School.