In the days just before and after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 80th birthday, I had the opportunity to visit two places that are integral to his modern day legacy: Washington, DC and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. As I witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s 44th president, I thought of Dr. King’s admonition, in his 1963 I Have a Dream Speech, that “we cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” Despite some continuing problems at the ballot box, this was an election about which Dr. King could be truly satisfied; African Americans turned out in record numbers to elect the nation’s first African-American president.
In the same speech, Dr. King reminded the nation that “when the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’”
For anyone who’s visited the Gulf Coast recently, it is obvious that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as the people of the Lower Ninth Ward—overwhelmingly poor and African-American—are concerned. The world witnessed in 2005 how our government left the region’s people to drown in their homes and suffer unspeakable conditions in the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome. More than three years later, that abandonment continues.
While tourist haunts like the French Quarter appear fully restored, low-income African-American neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth remain decimated. According to Oxfam America, for example, there are no plans to replace or repair almost half of the affordable apartments that were destroyed by the flooding and storms. And “despite the real need,” Oxfam reports, “more than 30,000 low-income homeowners are ineligible for rebuilding assistance and tens of thousands more have not received the level of assistance needed to rebuild their homes.” Workers, so important to the rebuilding of neighborhoods and the economy, can find neither decent housing nor living wages. Hospitals, public housing, and schools in the neediest communities remain shuttered or demolished.
Almost immediately after Hurricane Katrina, the Bush Administration ignored or removed the legal guarantees that could have protected displaced residents and workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration waived the enforcement of key health and safety regulations in hurricane-affected areas; the administration waived Davis-Bacon Act provisions requiring federal contractors to pay prevailing wages. Gulf Coast contractors were exempted from key civil rights laws. And, as Advocates for Environmental Human Rights has pointed out, federal law governing responses to national disasters continues to fall far short of international human rights standards that are touted by the US as the proper approach for other nations. Contrary to international requirements, our government has neither recognized nor upheld the right of displaced residents to return to their homes and neighborhoods.
In Dr. King’s speech from the Lincoln Memorial, he “refuse[d] to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt…[or] that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” In this remarkable moment, so full of hope and promise, one cannot help but share Dr. King’s belief.
As President Obama moves ahead with an economic recovery package that may exceed $1 trillion, the first shovel should break ground in the Lower Ninth Ward, creating jobs, and housing, and schools, and hospitals, and hope where they are all so desperately needed. And the human rights and opportunity protections that Dr. King fought for should flow back to the Gulf Coast like a mighty stream. I can think of no greater sign of change in America, and no greater embodiment of Dr. King’s legacy, than to bring justice home to the Lower Ninth Ward.