Cecil Roberts: We honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Source: Charleston Gazette Mail

As Americans mark the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, 50 years ago this week, we must continue our struggle to ensure that he did not die in vain. There is still too much poverty, too much inequality in our nation. We have not made enough progress.

Twenty years ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and I went through Appalachia talking about what steps were needed to end the crushing burden of poverty that forces millions of our fellow citizens to take desperate measures just to survive. Some say those who live in poverty should just “get a job.” But the truth is most of them have jobs. The job isn’t the problem — what the job pays is the problem. People cannot provide for a family on jobs that pay only the minimum wage or a few dollars more.

Back in 1998, Jackson and I were speaking about hope, and looking forward to a brighter future. But that future has not come to pass in Appalachia. More jobs are gone, caused by the depression in coal mining. Young families who relied on those jobs have little or nothing. Far too many have turned to opioids and other drugs. Many others have simply left to search for work elsewhere, deepening the economic hole as the population declines and tax revenue falls along with it.

The pensions of more than 87,000 retired miners or their widows are threatened. These pensions pump more than $600 million per year into the coalfield economy, with about two-thirds of that going to Appalachia. If Congress fails to do its job and that pension plan is allowed to fail, the impact will be felt throughout the region, not just where retirees live.

Schools and hospitals are closing throughout Appalachia. First responders are losing their jobs as counties and municipalities no longer have the tax revenue needed to pay for them. Roads and bridges are crumbling. The physical, social and economic improvements of the past 75 years are unwinding. Not too long ago, we were beginning to catch up to the rest of the nation. Today, we are falling further behind.

Too many of our political leaders have strayed from the path of ending poverty and instead have turned a blind eye to the suffering of their fellow citizens. They are entrapped by an ideology that worships dollars instead of people. They no longer act to help, they instead pass laws that make things worse for working families.

Times are indeed bleak in Appalachia. But I still have hope. These words of Dr. King still echo in my mind: “Ultimately, a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for the least of these.”

Let us take these days of remembrance and reflection to recommit ourselves to confronting poverty and inequality. We can no longer afford to turn away from these problems. We must act to solve them. The UMWA is already engaged in that effort, and we invite all to join us.

Written By: International President Cecil E. Roberts