I am a social worker by training and worked for a number of years as a case manager in some of New York City’s most marginalized communities. The injustice, discrimination, systemic poverty, and barriers to getting people in need of services help left a deep impact on my mind and gave me a stark understanding of why poverty remains fixed in American communities. While poverty is a multidimensional issue, racism and racial inequalities - I believe - are at the heart of many social unfairnesses with the United States.

Social work is a profession of service, and much of my desire to have a career in the social services stems from the inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Whitney Young, and so many other who led the fight for equality, opportunity, and a better America during the Civil Rights Era.

On Martin Luther King Day, I am remembering the people that sparked the civil rights movement and changed American history forever. Looking back at this powerful time in American history, I am reflecting on the close association between the struggle for civil rights and the fight against poverty. Civil Rights centered on justice, but just as critical to the movement was its focus on poverty and employment.

At the time of his assassination in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was advocating for the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis and planning a “Poor Peoples” campaign march in Washington, DC to promote the link between economic opportunity and civil rights. Dr. King, Jr. and other leading voices during the 1960s – including President Lyndon Johnson – understood the close connection between individuals that were denied civil rights and those that lived in deep poverty (the photo below shows images from the Poor People's Campaign in 1968).

The Civil Rights Movement stirred the United States to look at the problem of poverty in the United States. During President John F. Kennedy’s presidency, his Administration initiated a federal pilot program to address hunger, employment creation, and skills training. Following the assassination of JFK, President Lyndon B. Johnson took office and made a declaration of an “unconditional war on poverty in America.”

Poverty and income inequality remain persistence within American society and the world at large. Policymakers and scholars since the 1960s have understood that discrimination and poverty are major barriers to opportunity in America. Though there have been steady improvements within the United States towards tolerance and equality, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have disproportionately lower incomes than other ethnic and racial groups. Further these groups have disproportionately higher unemployment and poverty rates than their white counterparts. It is critical that Americans and the wider world continue to evaluate the state of civil rights, including consideration of income inequality and economic opportunity.

The modern civil rights movement focuses on expanding opportunity so that everyone has the same access to school, jobs, transportation, and health care services. It is critical to determine what’s different now compared to the 1960s. We’ve got to eradicate the more subtle manifestations of racial biases in our society (also known as micro aggressions) that hearken back to earlier times. Much of the current racial inequality and poverty in America can be linked to the historical discrimination that segregated black Americans into the poorest neighborhoods - neighborhoods that are often the most vulnerable to natural disasters, and the farthest away from schools, jobs, hospitals, and transportation services.

Understanding the biases that we hold is important to creating a brighter future. On that issue is a fascinating online test created by Harvard University to understand our implicit racial associations to see the biases that we may unknowingly have.

The modern civil rights movement is attempting to address issues and the somewhat less visible but very important inequalities within our society. Opportunity in America – and globally – should mean everyone has a fair chance to achieve his or her full potential. As of yet, this promise has not been fulfilled.

As 2015 kicks off, there is a chance for America and the world to renew its investment in ending class bias, inequality, and poverty that segregates people and communities. Further, as the protests in Ferguson over the murder of Mike Brown show, only the acknowledgement of systematic discrimination will help to end racism. On MLK Day 2015, not only will I be marching in the #Dream4Justice rally in New York City, but I will be renewing my dedication to service and working towards ending prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination. As a daily dedication, I have been reading a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others.’” By understanding and serving the needs of others, I believe strongly that the world can transform into a place without the degree of severe poverty, discrimination, and bias that we see today. I ask us all to work towards a better tomorrow together - as Global Citizens!


Kathleen Ebbitt



Demand Equity

The Civil Rights Movement and Its Connection To Poverty

By Former Global Citizen Staff Writer