Monday, 20 January is Martin Luther King Day and is a public holiday in the US.

Although we don’t mark the day in the UK, many of us know how the great the contribution which Martin Luther King made to civil rights around the world. Luther King fought against the poverty which undermines traps disadvantaged communities. 

In 1962, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Martin Luther King, launched Operation Breadbasket in Atlanta to highlight the poverty in Black communities. 

One of its central messages was that, while Black people paid the same taxes as everyone else and were consumers of big retailers and commerce, they were poorly served at best and mostly discriminated against.

In the UK today there are still disproportionate numbers of Black children living in poverty. The NEU wants to make the links between poverty and racism better understood.

  • By the time they do their GCSEs, there is a 28 per cent gap between children receiving free school meals and those who are not in terms of the number achieving at least 5 A*-C grades (.This research was conducted before the move to a numerical grading system). But with 45 per cent of children from Black families growing up in poverty, race plays a disproportionate factor in those whose grades are more likely to be affected by disadvantage.
  • Poverty rates are universally higher for ethnic minority groups – particularly impactful on Pakistani and Bangladeshi families.
  • Over half of Bangladeshi people are trapped in poverty, compared to 19 per cent from white ethnic groups.
  • Black African and Pakistani groups have higher rates of persistent poverty.
  • Many young asylum seekers, as well as some migrants or undocumented children, live in families not entitled to social security and no recourse to public funds. These children are not entitled to free school meals, and are coming to school hungry. They face many barriers to enabling them to come to school ready to learn.

What we can do

Operation Breadbasket used the organising strength of the churches to create economic opportunities in Black communities. The NEU is a trade union using the determination of its members and the power of collective organisation to challenge the economic and social injustices which disenfranchise children, families and whole communities.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson was appointed by Dr. King to lead SCLC's Operation Breadbasket. On this year’s Martin Luther King Day, Reverend Jackson has told the NEU: 

“It is almost immoral that in the UK and the US among the richest countries in the world that children still grow up in poverty. We may be free but we are not equal.  People of colour still face the sting of discrimination based on race. On the anniversary of Dr. King's birthday, let's keep working to give our children food, shelter and jobs, continue to educate for justice and teach them hope. Keep hope alive!”

Dr. King urged Black people not to patronise a business which “denies them jobs, or advancement [or] plain courtesy”.

This spirit and lesson can inspire us to campaign for social justice. The NEU believes that we can do so much more to give schools what they need to respond to the trauma in young people’s lives and to help young people use learning to gain agency, opportunities and self-belief. Education for social justice must be our goal. We have enormous opportunities to inspire and engage young people, but we need a creative curriculum, behaviour policies based on relationships, and a focus on the well-being of the staff in education.  We need a better vision of education, centred on children’s well-being and their human rights, and we can only achieve this by working shoulder to shoulder, as inspired by Dr King.

The NEU is working within the End Child Poverty coalition. We’ll be holding the Government to account on the progress it needs to make to meet its international obligations to end poverty.