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The Inspiration of Martin Luther King Jr.

AARP embraces his dream of a better future

Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — Flip Schulke/Corbis

The current economic downturn in America has hit the African-American community with special fury. Pew Research Center reported last month that more than one-third of African-American households had zero or negative net worth in 2009. The median wealth of African-American households was only one-twentieth that of white households. That is the largest disparity since the government started publishing this data a quarter-century ago.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies has found that for two in five households of retired African-Americans 65 and older who receive Social Security retirement benefits, these monthly checks are the sole source of income.

This sharp drop in assets and continued heavy reliance on Social Security shows how critical it is to protect and strengthen Social Security and Medicare.

As AARP gears up for the next round of this battle in Washington, we're reminded of something else that Dr. King said, "Change does not come on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle."

That was true in the days of segregation. It was true in the fight for voting rights. It is just as true today when it comes to health care and retirement security and, indeed, all the efforts to assist those who are vulnerable.

AARP itself was born of struggle — a long, uphill battle for fair treatment and dignity for every older person. For all the progress our country has made, we recognize there are many battles yet to be won. For instance, 6 million Americans who are 60 and older face the threat of hunger every day. People who have done so much for so many for so long now need to turn to others for help. That is why AARP Foundation is leading the Drive to End Hunger. We want to make sure older men and women get the food assistance they need, whether that is from volunteer-supported community food banks or the federal government.

At AARP we treasure the ethic of service that Martin Luther King Jr. embodied. He understood so well the awesome responsibility we all have to look out for each other. We know that lifting the lives of those in need is not just the work of government. It is also a matter for each of us — as a caregiver for a family member or friend, as a mentor or tutor to a child, or as an active and informed citizen in our community.

We reflect on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. not only to study the past but to shape a more hopeful future. With the glorious life of Dr. King in our minds and in our hearts, we can climb the staircase together.

A. Barry Rand is AARP's chief executive officer.

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