Fifty-five years ago, Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside the Lorraine Motel room in Memphis where he was organizing a crusade against American injustices causing poverty, the symptoms of which still plague Rhode Island and the nation.
Today, more than 100 AmeriCorps members and local volunteers will prepare 20,000 meals for distribution to students and families, organized by Gov. Dan McKee’s Administration’s Commission for National and Community Service – ServeRI – and the Rhode Island Department of Education in partnership with Segue Institute for Learning and the Outreach Program. They’re among hundreds of thousands across the country in honoring King through volunteer service.
That service, while laudable, was only part of King’s message, taken from a quote from an early speech in 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, in Aug. 11, referenced in an essay by Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton, 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs, “Every person must decide at some point whether they will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness,” King said. “This is the judgment: ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
King aimed to campaign against the injustices that contribute to the poverty that many volunteers will attend to today and throughout the year. As we laud and help these efforts, we should also keep in mind the actions, support and votes that will lessen the need for that work, nationally and here in the Ocean State.
During June 19 – 21 , hundreds of members of the Poor People’s Campaign, organized to continue King’s work against poverty, gathered on Capitol Hill to draw attention to the reality of poverty in America, highlighting poverty as an American death sentence, demanding action to end it and that it be on the nation’s agenda heading into the 2024 elections.
Participants also demanded the White House meet with poor and low-wealth workers, religious leaders, economists and lawyers with their moral movement to discuss how our nation’s leaders can address the crisis of death by poverty. At the time, hundreds of thousands of Americans were being kicked off of Medicaid, child poverty was on the rise as the expanded child tax credit was allowed to expire, and the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour had not been increased in 14 years.
“Today, poverty is the 4th leading cause of death nationwide. It is a death sentence for Americans. It is a moral travesty and a detriment to the soul of our nation that poverty kills more people than homicide yet the powers that be don’t want to address it,” said Bishop William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “There’s not a scarcity of resources, but a scarcity of political will. Until our nation’s leaders invest the great riches of this nation in ensuring equal justice for all, beginning with the poor and low-wealth of this nation, we cannot be silent.”
On March 2, the Rhode Island chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign will join more than 30 states holding simultaneous days of action at statehouses across the country.
Today, in Rhode Island, the poor and homeless are enduring another winter. According to a report from The RI Current referencing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rhode Island saw a 15 percent increase in homelessness from 1,577 in 2022 to 1,810 in 2023.
The RI Coalition to End Homelessness notes the chief cause for homelessness is the inability to afford a place to live. Their efforts focus both on helping the homeless and a political platform to prevent people from losing their homes, and provide more affordable housing. However, last year, only one of the chief parts of their platform, prohibiting landlords from charging a rental application fee, was passed in the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Dan McKee.
The remainder of the 2023 bills they supported, including increasing the notice landlords must give before raising rent to 120 days and capping payday lending interest rates at 36 percent, down from 260 percent, remained stuck in committee in either the House or Senate last year.
Service takes many forms, and serving others also means letting your national and state representatives know that policies and laws helping people by preventing them from needing to rely on charity in the first place is important.
MLK Day: What’s Open?
While you’re thinking about all of that and how you might help change it with your current representatives, remember the usual answers to common holiday questions:
Non-essential Government departments are closed, as are many corporations.
TF Green State Airport is operating, with arrival and departure schedules online.
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