March 15, 2004
"This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. Dangerous passions of pride, hatred and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless Calvaries. The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority."
Something strange in the air this year, as though the winds are about to change.
February represented yet another black history month ignored, though January saw a shifting focus of celebration around Martin Luther King Junior's birthday. And coming up on the 36th anniversary of his death on April 4th, there is a renewed sense of the significance of his slaying.
Whether or not his assassination was state murder, it is indisputable that King was on the U.S. enemies list. Proof that the US government tried to get King to commit suicide is a good measure of how far they would go, and whether his death was at their hands or not does not relieve them of their guilt. Reports available at the FBI's own Freedom of Information Act Web page are quite extraordinary.
As 2003 saw an imperial war take place without significant mainstream debate over its merits, and a heightened onslaught against the economic security of Americans, Dr. King's legacy was revitalized. Creating a combined target out of the injustices of civil rights abuses, poverty, and warfare, Martin Luther King got too close to the truth, and he was murdered for it. In classrooms ever since, Americans and others are taught about King's civil rights legacy. King's dream, now implemented, fills the hearts of students all over the world, and provides a lesson in courage and character, and indeed the human spirit. King's dream of a fully integrated and tolerant society represents America's overcoming of a deep injustice, where our stated ideals trumped our social mores. Any shortcomings in the realization of King's dream are mere temporary kinks.
If the above sounds incomplete, or even fallacious, that's because it is. We learn that King was assassinated for his successes in uniting across race; one angry racist holdover sought revenge with a rifle and took King away from us. "I have a dream" is recited in thousands of classrooms and auditoriums by millions of children every year. Racial bigotry is an ignoble blot in our nation's history. What we don't learn in our classrooms is the extreme disparity of wealth and opportunity -- inseparable from racial injustice, and inseparable from our militarized economy -- that King was taking a stand against. Deep personal, moral, and religious conviction informed King's devotions, and ironically in the "land of the free and the home of the brave," is what made him dangerous. April 4th marks not only the anniversary of King's assassination, but also the anniversary of his famous anti-Vietnam War address at Riverside Church in New York City one year earlier.
When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.King marched on after his "Beyond Vietnam" address, launching the Poor People's Campaign with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Recognizing that the right to sit at a lunch counter is meaningless if you can't afford a hamburger, King's work towards the end of his life focused on the economic injustice and poverty plaguing all of America, not just Black America. In essence, Dr. King joined the struggles of racism with the struggles of classism. Economic human rights was at the forefront, but King was killed before his Poor People's Campaign reached Washington, D.C. From May 13 through June 28, 1968, the National Mall became Resurrection City -- where poor people of all colors camped out and demanded justice. Yet to this day, their demands are unmet. In fact, in 2004, poverty, hunger, and homelessness -- in this wealthy nation -- are becoming much more severe.
As budgets at the federal, state, and local levels have to cope with growing poverty and growing deficits, services for the poor are being cut, the working poor are succumbing to homelessness, and the homeless are being turned away from shelters. According to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "in 2002, the average amount by which people who were poor fell below the poverty line was greater than in any other year since 1979." This measure of the depth of poverty, along with dramatic increases in people living in severe poverty, should be a wake-up call to those who think poverty is something the developing world must deal with. While the Cost of War page puts the cost of the Iraq War to date at $105 billion, social programs that provide stability -- like mental health and housing assistance programs -- continue to be cut. Where is the outrage at our elected officials for allowing corporations and the rich to evade their tax responsibilities, and simultaneously taking the economically disastrous step of stripping crucial safety net programs? Who pays in the long run?
While this practical outrage is missing, even more troubling is the lack of any moral outrage. Homelessness and hunger, especially among children, is an extreme indictment of our system of values. Yet poverty tends to be successfully hidden from mainstream America. Those who depend on government assistance are taught to live in shame, and low-income people living paycheck to paycheck, always at the mercy of their health and their employers, do not have a voice in the political processes which impact them. And those of us fortunate enough to not live in public housing, to not have to worry about our next meal, and not working multiple low-wage and no-benefit jobs just to feed our kids, need to overcome our complacency. We need to outgrow the mindset that "shit is rough and there's nothing we can do." We also need to wake up to the fact that poverty in our communities does effect us -- no matter how good we are at pretending otherwise. We need to declare an end to the acceptance of poverty as a constant, and rally around banishing poverty from our communities and from this earth.
The political winds are whistling differently through the trees this year. Howard Dean talked about white southerners voting against their economic interests due to cultural manipulation, and about corporations dramatically lowering their tax burdens over the years. John Edwards talked about the 35 million Americans living in poverty and child hunger. And in my own state of Massachusetts, people will gather at the State House in Boston on the 36th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's death, and talk about economic injustice, and the "radical revolution of values" that we need to embrace. This statewide March to Abolish Poverty will help to revive Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign, in the spirit of the inspiring Poor People's Marches led by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. And when the Democrats come to town in July, there will be a much more important gathering of movers and shakers across town, at the first of its kind Boston Social Forum.
There are many people finding, and building, the necessary alternatives to the status quo of exploitation and injustice -- probably more than at any other point in history. Isn't it about time? King's Dream is quite far from being realized, and tragically the relevance of his words today is extraordinary. But these are interesting times. And there ain't no power like the power of the people cuz the power of the people don't stop.
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Greens on Swans
Eli Beckerman is a Green Party activist.
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