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Obama needs 'strong, moral' point of view on the poor

By Roland Martin, CNN Contributor
updated 6:39 PM EDT, Sat April 7, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roland Martin sits down with Harry Belafonte for a discussion about the plight of the poor
  • Politicians often discuss the middle class, but rarely do they refer to the poor, Martin says
  • Belafonte witnessed firsthand the plight of the poor growing up in New York and Jamaica
  • He says flaw of capitalism is that for the nation to be rich, it has to be at someone's expense

(CNN) -- Listen to any politician today -- whether it's President Obama or GOP challengers Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum -- and they will be quick to extol the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Quoting King is one thing; taking up the mantle of King's work is another. And whether we want to admit it or not, King was a man who didn't focus on the middle class and upper middle class with no regards to the condition of the nation's most vulnerable.

Most folks don't even remember that when he was gunned down 44 years ago, on April 4, 1968, he was fighting for better wages for sanitation workers. Many of us would turn our noses up at the sight -- and smell -- of a garbage worker. But King locked arms with them as they wore "I Am A Man" signs over their chests.

For Harry Belafonte, one of King's closest friends and advisers, America is still unwilling to focus on the poor. Most political leaders will repeat "middle class" ad nauseam. GOP candidates will fight hard to protect tax breaks for the richest Americans. Yet try to find evidence of Republican or Democratic candidates speaking passionately about the poor. You'll have a tough time finding it.

I recently sat down with Belafonte, an actor, singer and humanitarian, for a nearly 90-minute interview that will air this Sunday at 11 a.m. ET on my TV One cable network show "Washington Watch."

Belafonte, still as feisty and passionate as he has ever been in his 85 years on this earth, talked about King, his dear friend and comrade, as well as why the poor should stop being demonized.

"I don't think there's any group in the world that works harder than do the poor. I think the poor are the hardest-working citizens in the global family, wherever you find them -- the poor in Asia, the poor in India, the poor in Africa, the poor in Latin America, the Caribbean, the poor in America," said Belafonte, who has traveled to poor countries across the world, imploring political and business leaders to not ignore the disenfranchised.

"All day long is spent [doing] nothing but trying to find a way to break out of that bottleneck of oppression that poverty represents. And I think it is absolutely ludicrous that somebody could ever say that people in poverty are there ... because it is their choice to be there -- that they're lazy, that they're indifferent, that they wanna live off the state. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Belafonte witnessed firsthand the plight of the poor. That's how he grew up in New York and in Jamaica. He says that no matter how hard his mother worked and worked, even multiple jobs, she just could never seem to be able to get out of the crippling condition.

He concludes that the one fatal flaw in America's capitalistic system is that in order for the nation to be rich, it has to be at someone else's expense.

"If the system has got to find cheap markets in which to build its power, in which to build its future, that means somebody has to be poor," he said. "Somebody has to be at the bottom of the ladder. Where do you find cheap markets? Where people are undereducated, people are undernourished, people are suffering deeply."

He added: "King would say, 'I have nothing against the rich -- nothing at all. I just want everybody to be rich.' And when you take a look at capitalism, the minute I hear you have to go to India, or China, or the Caribbean and find cheap markets in order to outsource ... something's flawed. And I look at that as one of the greatest difficulties in trying to extricate ourselves from poverty."

And it is on this point that Belafonte -- who was a close adviser to President Kennedy and has worked with, and fought against, other presidents -- says Obama, a former community organizer, needs to be a stronger advocate for the nation's poor.

"There is a moral consequence to what you do politically; there's a moral implication. And if you do not make your decision on what to do politically based upon some moral measure, you're more often than not prone [to] perpetuate the evil, or perpetuate the pain," Belafonte told me.

"I think what has failed Barack Obama -- or, [what] Barack Obama has failed to evoke -- is a strong, moral point of view on the plight of the poor. He hardly ever mentions them at all. He mentions the middle class. He mentions losing the middle class to the poor. He mentions everything but the poor.

"What is your difficulty here? Why can't you talk about the plight of the poor and let the rest of the world see that, perhaps, there's a moral undergirding to your view of how to fix what's wrong politically? If you fix what's wrong for the middle class, that means you've still got a whole class of people that are to be exploited at the bottom rung of the ladder, because you have to have a cheap market. That's the whole conflict with work, the whole conflict with labor.

"Most of the 1% believe that the workers are gettin' too much money. Well, I don't know too many workers that have yachts. I don't know too many workers that are finding themselves living the luxury in the South of France and going away for the fat vacations."

Next week: Belafonte on why it's time for young Americans to lead a 21st century social justice movement.

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