Ruth Matlock, who once earned a dollar a day cleaning Omaha houses, knows what it's like to work hard and still be poor.
And the 78-year-old social worker, whose days now are spent helping needy Omahans, knows what it's like to work hard for the poor.
“Oh yes, I've been in the trenches,” she said. “But sometimes it feels like you're on a treadmill.”
Matlock sees little progress in the anti-poverty fight that was the final crusade for the man whose life we will remember on Monday: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age,” King wrote in 1967. “It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil. ... The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
We know King mainly through the civil rights movement — the boycotts, the marches, the speeches, the dream and the resulting landmark federal legislation that outlawed racial discrimination.
King could have stopped there, basked in the changes and said, “OK, well, we got that done.”
Instead, he drew from the idealism of his youth and the urgency of his time and turned the fight to poverty.
Clayborne Carson, a King expert based at Stanford University, noted that King was born during the Great Depression and witnessed the plight of the poor. He was heavily influenced by the Social Gospel movement, which took Christ at his word to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for the least of us.
At age 19 in seminary school, Carson said, King laid out his mission for himself as a minister — “to deal with poverty, slums and economic insecurity.”
The 1960s brought civil rights laws and the War on Poverty, which was launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson 50 years ago this month. But King became angry that those efforts weren't accomplishing enough. He made economic justice his new civil rights battle.
King moved his wife and four young children to a Chicago slum. He went after Johnson, saying the president was putting too many resources into the wrong war — Vietnam — and not spending enough money on anti-poverty programs to make a difference.
King also prepared supporters for what he said would be a long slog.
“It's much easier to integrate a bus than it is to eradicate slums,” King said in 1967. “It is much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee an annual income. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to create jobs.”
While most people have come to reject racial discrimination, there's less commitment to the idea of ending poverty.
“We still haven't decided that poverty is wrong in the same way that racial segregation is wrong,” Carson said. “But that's what King was trying to do. That was his dream — that we would reach the point where poverty would be morally offensive.”
King called for an economic bill of rights that provided full employment, guaranteed an income, created half a million affordable homes and included billions more in federal aid.
He helped organize a Poor People's Campaign, envisioned as a second March on Washington — but with a twist. People would camp on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., occupying it until the federal government did something more to help the poor.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
In one of his last speeches, King explained why: “We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.”
Some allies thought it wasn't the right approach. Critics called him a communist. People threw rocks and waved Nazi signs in Chicago. The FBI ramped up its investigation of him and other anti-poverty campaigners.
“The winning issue was, 'Let's eliminate Jim Crow (segregation laws) in the South,' ” Carson said. “But when he goes to Chicago and says, 'Let's eliminate slums,' that's an issue whose time still has not come.”
King's assassination in April 1968 — on a trip to Memphis to support sanitation workers striking for fair wages — threw his anti-poverty crusade into disarray. The demonstration on the National Mall took place, but it fizzled. Poverty took a back seat to the Vietnam War as the nation's top issue.
Ruth Matlock felt the “devastating” loss of King's death and watched as north Omaha exploded in chaos and riots.
At the time, though, she was waging a personal struggle to get ahead. Although she and her husband worked full-time jobs, they earned little.
Matlock had worked since she was 11. She dropped out of school at 16, married and had two children. She cleaned houses, sliced meat at a grocery store, served as a nurse's aide. Her husband worked as a laborer and meatpacker.
But still they were broke. Matlock went back to school, hoping to get a better job.
In 1980, she stopped at an agency called Greater Omaha Community Action to obtain free tax help. She wound up with a job.
GOCA, which was one of the Johnson-era War on Poverty programs, now is known as ENCAP. It was meant as a one-stop shop to link low-income people with a variety of resources to meet their needs.
Matlock has driven people to appointments, delivered boxes of food, helped restore people's lights and heat, cooked breakfast for senior citizens, started GED classes and done people's taxes.
“I love to work,” she said. “And I just feel I'm needed.”
Indeed. ENCAP is one of nine community action agencies in Nebraska that carry on King's efforts to help the poor — and illustrates how far we are from achieving King's vision of eliminating poverty itself.
Last year, those agencies served 100,000 people.