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A Few Thoughts on Dr. King's Birthday

January 17, 2011

Mlk_vert In the spring of 1966, with the war in Vietnam turning into the quagmire that would make Lyndon Johnson a one-term president and John Lennon's controversial comments about the popularity of his band and Jesus just weeks old, The Nation published what would turn out to be the last of four annual essays contributed to the magazine by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the time, many people would have understood if Dr. King had paused and taken a well-deserved break from the struggle that had consumed his life since the middle of the previous decade. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize and become the most recognizable symbol of a social movement whose signature tactic, nonviolent civil disobedience, and signal achievements, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, had galvanized the world. But King was nothing if not impatient when confronted with injustice.

Earlier that year, he and his SCLC colleagues had launched the Chicago Freedom Movement, which would become the largest sustained civil rights campaign in the North during the decade of the '60s. As one might expect from a man whose vision and hopes for his country were as expansive as Dr. King's, the goal of the campaign was nothing less than an end to the "economic exploitation [that] is crystallized in the SLUM." King was under no illusion as to the magnitude of the task at hand -- or the power and determination of the forces opposed to his efforts. But as he noted in his Nation article, "mass nonviolent action" would continue to be the tactic of the movement. Indeed, wrote King,

It was the mass-action movement that engendered the changes of the decade....Without the will to unity and struggle Negroes would have no strength, and reversal of their successes could be easily effected. The use of creative tensions that broke the barriers of the South will be as indispensable in the North to obtain and extend necessary objectives.

These are partial elements of the Negro's program for freedom. Beyond these is one of singular importance which will be featured in the North -- economic security. This is usually referred to as the need for jobs. The distinction made here between economic security and jobs is not semantic. A job in our industrial society is not necessarily equivalent to security. It is too often undercut by layoffs. No element of the working people suffers so acutely from layoffs as Negroes, traditionally the first fired and the last hired. They lack the seniority other workers accumulate because discrimination thwarts long-term employment. Negroes need the kind of employment that lasts the year through. They need the opportunity to advance on the job; they need the type of employment that feeds, clothes, educates and stabilizes a family. Statistics that picture declining rates of unemployment veil the reality that Negro jobs are still substandard and evanescent. The instability of employment reflects itself in the fragile character of Negro ambitions and economic foundations....

Our nation is now so rich, so productive, that the continuation of persistent poverty is incendiary because the poor cannot rationalize their deprivation. We have yet to confront and solve the international problems created by our wealth in a world still largely hungry and miserable. But more immediate and pressing is the domestic existence of poverty. It is an anachronism in the second half of the 20th century. Only the neglect to plan intelligently and adequately and the unwillingness genuinely to embrace economic justice enable it to persist....

We've come a long way as a society in the decades since Dr. King penned those words. But we have a long way yet to go. Economic inequality is approaching levels not seen since the days of the robber barons, and the un- and underemployment rates for African Americans remain stuck at 16 percent and 25 percent, respectively, putting at risk a quarter-century of social progress.

Were he alive, one suspects Dr. King would be disappointed but not surprised by the current state of affairs. He initiated the Poor People's Campaign in 1967, after all, to dramatize the needs of the poor, regardless of color, in a society that too often ignores them. And his final campaign -- one that put him in mortal danger -- was in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. He knew, better than most, that the work of creating a more just society was not for the weak-kneed or faint of heart.

As we honor Dr. King on what would've been his eighty-second birthday, let us remember that change, real social change, almost always happens from the bottom up and that each one of us is responsible for making the change we believe in.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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