Chasing the dream, 1 new job at a time

The Baltimore Sun

"The ultimate 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. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life."

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Pasted to Ralph E. Moore Jr.'s door at St. Frances Academy Community Center is a poignant quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It's not about having a dream, and it says nothing about the content of one's character.

Rather, the passage comes from King's 1963 "Strength to Love" speech, which stresses the need to uplift those who are less fortunate.

It's been the foundation of Moore's anti-poverty activism for more than two decades. It also serves as inspiration for an annual job fair and skills training event that the Baltimore community center hosts every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Today, amid parades, volunteer efforts and lectures planned to commemorate the observance of King's birthday - he would have been 79 - scholars, civil rights pioneers and activists such as Moore are urging people to remember King, the champion for economic justice.

Less celebrated than his epic 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, the Montgomery bus boycott or his oratory gifts is King's anti-poverty crusade.

"People don't recall that the March on Washington was actually called the march for jobs and freedom," said Moore, 55. "When he died, he was working for economic justice issues. He was actively organizing a strong coalition of a variety of races to focus on the poverty issue."

One need look no farther than Baltimore for evidence that poverty and the social ills associated with it remain 40 years since King's death, Moore said. Nearly 20 percent of Baltimore's population lives in poverty, the U.S. Census found in 2006. And an estimated 227,700 Baltimoreans 16 and older are unemployed or not in the workforce, according to the city's Job Opportunities Task Force.

Six years ago, Moore, who grew up in Baltimore's Sandtown community, began tying King's anti-poverty message to the small job fair. The first event attracted a few dozen employers, but the demand from job seekers was huge. Nearly 300 people showed up. It was the first time a formal job fair had come to Johnston Square, this economically depressed neighborhood just east of Mount Vernon, Moore said.

This year, several hundred people have registered for the event, which will feature workshops on resume writing and interview skills in addition to recruiting. And unlike many similar events, this one encourages job seekers to stay in touch with organizers. The first 10 people who contact Moore on or after April 4 - the anniversary of the date King was assassinated - will receive $100, if they can prove they have retained the job they got at the fair.

"It's not a lot, but we want to make sure people connect to jobs," said Moore, who previously served as vice president of the now-defunct Center for Poverty Solutions. "We are dealing with a tougher population, people with criminal records, and there are a lot of discouraged workers because of this."

Moore estimates that about 85 percent of the people attracted to the event have arrest records, which remains a huge barrier to employment. But it is precisely the population that most needs employment, he said. Job fair organizers reached out to employers who are willing to hire people with criminal records.

"These are the folks who are forgotten; this is the invisible population," he said. "But these are people who want to do more and better their lives."

Waged in the final year of his life, King's campaign for full employment was controversial, unpopular among some of his activist peers and risky. Culminating in the Poor People's Campaign of 1968, King planned for "a multiracial army of the poor" to descend on Washington in a nonviolent protest urging Congress to sign a poor people's bill of rights. He called it the second phase of the civil rights struggle.

"He said it over and over again - racism, poverty and war are the triple evils," said Thomas F. Jackson, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice. "And racism is bound up with poverty. You could not combat one without combating the other."

But the campaign sputtered. King infuriated President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 when he criticized the Vietnam War as an "enemy of the poor." Civil rights leaders complained the movement was too ambitious and unstructured. And with demands for a massive government jobs program, others saw King as too radical.

King died organizing the campaign. In May 1968, marchers staged sit-ins on the Mall in Washington, but attendance was small.

"In the eyes of the press and the nation, it was a failure, but for the participants and the organizers, it was part of the process of learning," Jackson said. "It put the human face of poverty at the forefront."

The Rev. Marion C. Bascom, retired pastor of Baltimore's Douglas Memorial Community Church and a confidant of King's, allowed Poor People's Campaign marchers to take refuge at his church en route to Washington.

"It was terribly important," he said. "My reaction then and now would be hallelujah. I read in the paper [Friday] we are trying to combat homelessness. We are trying to deal with it now. Well, it's too late."

Those who paid little attention to King's legacy of economic justice must reconsider it, he said.

"He had the power to articulate the tragedy that runs rampant and he said it with such force, such power and with such intellectual excellence that not even a bigot could argue with it," Bascom said. "We are still being called on to do what he did."

It's a message that Moore hopes to get out in the job fair: We're all in this together.

"I don't think King would want a parade done in his honor, although I appreciate the people who want to honor him in that way," Moore said. "I think he would want someone to march somewhere, to do something."

Job fair

If you go: Doors open at St. Frances Academy Community Center at 7:30 a.m. Free breakfast will be provided. Workshops are 8:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., with a free lunch at noon. The job fair runs from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The center is located at 501 E. Chase St., Baltimore.

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