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Rep. John Conyers

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Reigniting the Dream

Posted: 10/15/11 01:03 PM ET

The dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial provides an opportunity to reflect and commit ourselves to Dr. King's work. The ceremony on Oct. 16 will also serve as a homecoming for people of every nation who heeded Dr. King's dare to dream and then worked toward the twin goals of justice and equality. In addition we honor the sacrifices of those who marched, sacrificed, and died -- including Dr. King -- in the struggle for equality and equal justice under law.

But what exactly was King's dream? The easy answer is an America free of racial injustice. But Dr. King understood that at the root of racial injustice lay economic injustice. Poverty went hand-in-hand with segregation. Poverty kept African Americans struggling under the yoke of segregation, and poverty bred the racism and ignorance that made segregation popular amongst their poor white neighbors. Dr. King dreamed to end not just racial injustice, but the poverty that had allowed it to flourish.

When you examine the levels of poverty and unemployment in the nation today, when juxtaposed against the current levels of defense spending from a decade of war, I believe that Dr. King would determine that the nation had failed to heed his vision of jobs, justice and peace.As families have suffered under the weight of joblessness, low wages and the housing crisis, it is the youngest members of American society who are most affected. The latest "Kids Count" report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that child poverty grew in 38 of 50 U.S. states over the past decade.

In 2009, 20 percent of U.S. children -- about 14.7 million -- were poor, up from 17 percent in 2000. This means that about 2.5 million more children were living in poverty in 2009 than in 2000. This contrasts to the period from 1994 to 2000, when the child poverty rate fell by nearly 30 percent.

The report found that poverty rates are highest in the South, Southwest and Appalachia. In Mississippi, the worst-affected state, 31 percent of children live in poverty. The highest rates of child poverty were seen among African Americans (36 percent), American Indian and Alaskan Natives (35 percent), and Hispanics (31 percent). As measured by the impact on the youngest members of our society, we still need to adjust our priorities. The message of Dr. King remains as relevant today as at the time of his death.

Part of the greatness of Dr. King was his ability to convert a mass political movement into an opportunity for an individual awakening by touching our essential humanity. As a young lawyer in Detroit, he inspired me to go south to join the crusade against Jim Crow segregation. It was through this work that I first met Rosa Parks, who ultimately was forced to leave Montgomery after the successful bus boycott to seek better economic opportunity. Ms. Parks joined my first campaign for Congress, and I was honored when she helped secure an endorsement of me from Dr. King, one of the few he ever made.

Dr. King's vision of a just America has been the touchstone of my congressional career. For example, I continue to advocate on behalf of H.R. 676, a bill to institute a single payer healthcare system, out of a belief that every American, regardless of their circumstances, deserves access to healthcare coverage. Lack of coverage is one of the largest contributing causes of bankruptcy in this country and we all pay real and social costs when our fellow citizens lack coverage. Dr. King understood that we are not just individuals. And his message that we have a real obligation to help each other, coupled with his commitment in the face of opposition, and strength of character has inspired my work during every day that I have served in Congress.

When we honor Dr. King, we must remember the greater message of his "I Have a Dream" speech. He fought for jobs, justice and peace for all people. He took on the North's dehumanizing forms of segregation, and marched with garbage collectors, autoworkers, Teamsters, and other organized labor groups to demand fair pay and dignity for workers of all races. He organized protests to end the era's bloody wars, and fought for the rights denied to gays and lesbians. Dr. King's dedication to speaking truth to power on unpopular issues earned him powerful enemies and caused controversy long after his death.

When I introduced the MLK holiday bill in the days following his assassination, his opponents sought to undermine the effort by pointing to his stance on the Vietnam War and accusing him of being un-American. The power of Dr. King's message could not be denied, and slowly but surely, support for a federal holiday in his honor grew into the millions. Finally, in 1983, fifteen years after Dr. King's assassination and twenty years after the March on Washington, Congress passed the legislation with a vote of 338 to 90 in the House on Aug. 3 and a vote of 78 to 22 in the Senate on Oct. 19. That November, President Reagan signed Public Law 98-144 into law. Many of those members of Congress who opposed the bill in at its initial introduction were converted along the way and openly wondered why it took so long to pass.

I hope that the King Memorial will help ground his legacy in historical fact. The new Memorial should rekindle our nation's reverence of not just Dr. King's words, but his works. In this time of political acrimony -- casualties from two wars and millions of Americans out of work -- I hope this celebration will remind our great country of the goals for which Dr. King gave his life and inspire each of us to realize his dreams through our daily actions.

Originally published at the American Constitution Society