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Why Obama's 2nd Term Should Be All About Taking on MLK's Anti-Poverty Crusade

Tavis Smiley offers a roadmap for Obama... to follow in Martin Luther King's footsteps

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This Monday marks the public inauguration that will usher in President Obama’s second term, and we turn now to the call for him to put more than 50 million Americans living in poverty at the top of his agenda. The issue has garnered attention in part because Obama will take the oath of office with his hand placed on two Bibles—one owned by Abraham Lincoln and the other owned by Martin Luther King Jr., known for his civil rights and anti-poverty activism. The inauguration also comes on January 21st, the federal holiday in honor of the civil rights leader, who delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial. Obama will face the memorial as he takes the oath. He has addressed the issue of Martin Luther King and poverty before, in 2011, when he spoke at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Monument at the National Mall.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nearly 50 years after the March on Washington, our work, Dr. King’s work, is not yet complete. We gather here at a moment of great challenge and great change. In the first decade of this new century, we have been tested by war and by tragedy, by an economic crisis and its aftermath that has left millions out of work and poverty on the rise and millions more just struggling to get by. Indeed, even before this crisis struck, we had endured a decade of rising inequality and stagnant wages. In too many troubled neighborhoods across the country, the conditions of our poorest citizens appear little changed from what existed 50 years ago, neighborhoods with underfunded schools and broken-down slums, inadequate healthcare, constant violence, neighborhoods in which too many young people grow up with little hope and few prospects for the future.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama speaking in 2011 at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Well, journalist, author Tavis Smiley has spent the last year crisscrossing the country with activist, professor, preacher, Cornel West, to start a national conversation on poverty, which they address in their book,  The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. They’ve called on President Obama to organize a White House Conference on the Eradication of Poverty in America. And tonight Tavis will be in the nation’s capital moderating a nationally televised symposium called "Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty." The event begins a 6:30 p.m. Eastern time and will be broadcast live on C-SPAN at George Washington University. Tavis Smiley joins us now from Washington.

Tavis, welcome back to  Democracy Now! Talk about what you’re doing and what you want President Obama to do, to convene.

TAVIS SMILEY: Thank you, Amy and Juan, for having me back on, and Dr. West sends his regards.

First of all, let me just say very quickly, with regard to the King Bible being used in this inauguration, I’m feeling ambivalent about that, in part because I always—I have always regarded Dr. King as the greatest American this country has ever produced. And any celebration, any honor of Dr. King that keeps his legacy at the center of the conversation is important. But I’m feeling some sort of way about this because at a moment where this country is using more drones than ever before, oftentimes killing innocent women and children, at a moment when this country continues to render poor people invisible, at a moment when this country continues to escalate militarily, all the things that concerned Dr. King, those—that triple threat, those three evils that King talked about, are more out of control now than ever before. And so it’s one thing to engage in the symbolism of placing our hand on his Bible; it’s quite another to get down to the real work of—the substantive work that King would want us to be doing, were he here now—so that on Monday, President Obama will be in the foreground, but Dr. King clearly stands and looms large in the background, as the backdrop, if you will.

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