Today We Are One

Terrance Heath

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

I wrote earlier today that from his mountaintop Martin Luther King Jr. saw the "promised land" he envisioned. He saw the mountains we would have to cross together, and the mountains we would have to climb together in order to reach it. He saw a future in which all are judged by the content of their character. He saw a future in which "all labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance," and laborers are afforded their dignity. He saw a future in which "we rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."

Dr. King saw that future and told us we would get there, though it would have to be without him. He believed we have it in us to get there. With 1,000 We Are One events taking place worldwide, it looks like we are beginning to believe it ourselves.

There were signs, as I said earlier, that we are capable of the dangerous unselfishness the journey requires.

That dangerous unselfishness drove the civil rights movement. At its core, the civil rights movement was an understanding that the stem of racial injustice was just as harmful to white Americans as it was to African Americans; as detrimental to their souls as it was to the every day lives of blacks. The civil rights movement was just as much about stopping the damage segregation was doing to whites as it was about stopping the damage it did to blacks. It was, as King said, driven not by the question of "What will happen to me if I do?" but "What will happen to them if I don’t?" and ultimately "What will happen to us?"

It is the same in the lives of individuals and nations. We must ask not only, "What will happen to them if we do not help?" But "What will happen to us if we do not help?" How will that moral choice shape us? What will we become as a result? What kind of people will we be?

…Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity." I believe, and I think King understood, that we must ask ourselves one more question. We must ask "If I do not stop to help, what will happen to me?" The choices we make not only reflect who we are, but they shape who we are.

We need more dangerous unselfishness today. We saw it in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, as non-union workers asked not just "What will happen to me?" or "What will happen to them?" but "What will happen to us?" Indeed, the words of King’s final speech rang out as protesters were arrested at the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison.

We saw that dangerous unselfishness in Madison, when Wisconsin’s firefighters supported public employees and unions targeted by Gov. Scott Walker, even though Walker exempted them from his attack, and again when the state’s firefighters shut down a bank that was a major donor to Walker’s campaign by collectively withdrawing their money.

We saw it when pizza orders poured into Madison from across the country, and all the way from Cairo. Egypt.

Recently, there have been more signs:

Across the country and around the world, at a time when more and more middle- and working-class Americans race real economic "uncertainty" on a daily basis, more and more of us are practicing dangerous unselfishness.

Dr.King said that "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." Martin Luther King II explained why his father took a stand in 1968 and why he would stand with us today.

Forty-three years ago my father, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated while he was in Memphis, Tenn., supporting a strike of municipal sanitation workers. It was, in his eyes, more than a quest for a few more dollars in a paycheck. He saw the strike as part of the great struggle of his time—a struggle for democracy, for truth, for justice and for human dignity.

These are the same basic reasons that my father would be joining with millions of other Americans today in supporting public employees in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and other states, where collective bargaining is now under attack.

Martin Luther King Jr. would be marching for dignity: The fundamental purpose of unions has always been job security and protection from arbitrary firing, not simply larger paychecks. Before unions, workers would “shape up” before factory gates and beg to be chosen for a days’ labor.

In the past some state governments that were unable to offer wage increases in negotiations offered in their place long-term fringe benefits that later proved fiscally unsustainable. In recent years, municipal unions have again and again negotiated “give-backs” through collective bargaining that substantially reduce these benefits but preserve workers’ rights to representation and basic human dignity. In Wisconsin, the unions conceded to all of Gov. Scott Walker’s financial demands in the earliest days of the conflict, only to find that his covert agenda was not fiscal prudence but their complete evisceration.

On April 4, the anniversary of the assassination of my father, I’ll be joining the with thousands of Americans of all races in the nationwide “We Are One” demonstrations supporting America’s public employees, trade unions and working people in a common quest for jobs, justice and decency for all citizens. In this endeavor, we seek the support of all Americans of good will.

Whether we stand on yet another mountaintop, or on the bank of yet another river we must cross together, today we know where we stand. And as long as we remember what Dr. King saw and what he believed we were capable of, we’ll get there. We’ll get there. Together.

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