Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brandeis University Archives )

America’s Promissory Note – King Jr. on Poverty and Homelessness 


It was his final march, standing shoulder to shoulder with the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, TN, in April 1968. According to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., their concerns were our concerns.  

This concern extended to all who lived in poverty in America. It was the richness and vast resources of the wealth of our nation that was not used to “school the unschooled and feed the unfed” that drew his ire.  

King said that America signed a promissory note to help “bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.”  The Declaration of Independence states:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Martin Luther King Jr., Marches with Memphis Sanitation Workers (Jack Thornell / Associated Press)

King would ask how humankind could pursue happiness if they do not have a job, an income, or a place to sleep. He would ask how one could avoid being depressed when he sees millions going to bed hungry with his own eyes or “God’s children sleeping on the sidewalks at night?”  

For King, poverty was an evil that plagued the modern world. It was seeing our neighbors suffer in plain sight, a failure of a nation’s long-ago promise to its citizen.  

 In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech, King addressed this plight, lamenting the ills of poverty: 

“They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of cities and the dusty roads of the villages.” 

Martin Luther King Jr., Leads Strike in Memphis
(Associated Press)

 King believed that the “true measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” For him, poverty in a nation as prosperous as ours was an unfathomable phenomenon that should not persist. He believed that humankind formed an “inescapable network of mutuality.” King would say that we are all “tied in a single garment of destiny.”  

 “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be,” King said. 

For months before his death, King saw “poverty as an issue of overriding urgency.” King would say that with the existence of poverty, no man could be totally rich even if he had a billion dollars. 

For King, eradicating poverty was a question of compassion and the willingness of our country to stand up for those less fortunate. He said this was our responsibility as a nation but also a personal responsibility for each of us to do our part. King would encourage us to reach beyond ourselves and to courageously do what is right. 

Dr. King speaks on March 25, 1967 at the Chicago peace march. (AP Photo/Chick Harrity) 

As we celebrate his legacy, his birthday, the promissory note remains unanswered as the City of Angels and the nation strives to find answers to homelessness. Consider the 2022 Los Angeles homelessness statistics:  69,144 people experienced homelessness in Los Angeles County in 2022.  

  • 9% are under the age 18. 
  • 32% are female. 
  • 16% are in family units (often headed by a single mother}. 
  • 18% are physically disabled. 
  • 9% are developmentally disabled. 
  • 41% are chronically homeless. 
  • 24% have substance abuse disorders. 
  • 22% suffer from serious mental illness. 
  • 33% experienced domestic/intimate partner violence. 


King, in many writings, warned of our day of judgment when we “stand before the God of history.” He spoke of the things that we could tell God that we had done…”built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies, submarines to penetrate oceanic depths.” But God, King said, would answer that those things weren’t enough. 

Matthew 25:42-45 states: “But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. Consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye, do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye, do it unto me.” 

King being interviewed on April 1, 1967. (AP Photo)

What, then, would Martin Luther King Jr., have us do? He would tell us that love for one another transcends the evils of homelessness. “Love, truth, and the courage to do what is right should be our guidepost.”  

King would say that we can no longer afford the luxury of looking away, crossing the street on the other side, or stepping over those who lay on our streets with outstretched hands. He would ask that we aspire to a higher moral calling and underpin human dignity. He would remind us that when humanity is at its best, we should ask the right questions – what will happen to those who sleep on the streets, cannot provide for themselves, if I do not go to them, to help them? 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (File photo)

King left us with these words, his guidepost, “I must not ignore the wounded man on life’s Jericho Road because he is a part of me, and I am a part of him. His agony diminishes me, and his salvation enlarges me.” 

The MLK Memorial in Washington, DC. (File photo)