MEMPHIS — Fifty years after his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. would be "displeased" with the nation's persistent poverty, cuts to healthcare and education programs and the costly burden of its military, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said during appearances at two Memphis churches Sunday.
"Our challenge today is not just to admire Dr. King, but to follow him," Jackson said, noting the upcoming anniversary of the civil rights leader's April 4, 1968, assassination in Memphis.
Jackson, 76, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, was in Memphis to celebrate Black History Month, urge voter registration and address issues ranging from healthcare to the "food deserts" created as a result of the recently announced closings of two grocery stores in Memphis. Last week, he gave a similar message at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Fort Washington, Md.
Jackson, a protege of King's who was at the Lorraine Motel when the Nobel Prize-winning leader was fatally shot, began his day with visits to Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on Bellevue and at Christ Missionary Baptist Church on South Parkway East. He later was scheduled to tour a historic African-American hospital and then preside at a town hall forum.
His message at the two churches was consistent: African-Americans need to vote in greater numbers, the nation needs to do more to help the poor, and "skin worship" -- the glorification of skin color -- is a direct affront to King's dream of a multicultural "Big Tent" America.
Jackson noted the nearly 4 million unregistered black voters in the South, adding that 2 million of the region's African-Americans who were registered failed to go to the polls during the 2016 presidential election.
"The byproduct was Donald Trump," he said.
At Christ Missionary, Jackson again focused on current policies undercutting the Affordable Care Act and cuts to programs such as Head Start.
"Dr. King would not be pleased with expanding poverty at the bottom for the masses and wealth at the top for the few," he said, as the congregation repeated his words.
Jackson also spoke of the large portion of the nation's budget devoted to defense, or "our capacity to kill." And he alluded to reports that President Trump wants a military parade.
"He wants to sit and be saluted," Jackson said. "We do not meed a military parade. We need healthcare, better wages and education for our children."
At both stops, Jackson mentioned his recent diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, an incurable neurological disorder.
"Well, Parkinson's is in trouble, because I have faith," he said.
Follow Tom Charlier on Twitter at @thomasrcharlier.