Our nation is about to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington. Over the next few days there will be new marches and new speeches, along with lots of black-and-white photographs and film clips of that historic day. We’ll remember the wisdom and courage of the civil rights movement’s leaders and heroes.
Many words of praise will be addressed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The pain of losing him still lingers – not only for the human tragedy of a life cut short, but because he had so much guidance to offer us about the struggles we face today.
Dr. King was a leader in the fight against segregation. But he also recognized that racial justice was woven inseparably into a seamless garment of justice that touches every aspect of modern life. From the gulf of time, from a half-century of struggle and change, his words speak directly to the challenges we face today. We periodically revisit them for inspiration and guidance, and we need them today more than ever.
This week the political establishment may try to co-opt Dr. King’s identity. But Dr. King wasn’t a politician. He was a true revolutionary of the highest order: a revolutionary of the spirit. He sought to overthrow all that had become calcified and unjust, not only in our politics, but in our values, our society, and our hearts.
We need that revolutionary vision today: to reform the bank system, to address joblessness and wage inequality, to treat one another – and ourselves – as human beings with an inherent worth that can’t be measured in a bank account.
Dr. King’s words – about our values, our economy, our human rights - should be our touchstone. They should inspire us - and challenge us too.
A Revolution of Values
"Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."
It can’t be said more clearly than that. Any law that diminishes our personhood – in the workplace, in the home, in the autonomy of our own bodies – is an unjust law.
That applies to laws which invade our privacy and trample on our civil liberties – or on the misinterpretation and twisting of laws to achieve the same goals.
Any law which makes our human rights contingent on our bankbooks is equally unjust. That includes the rights of speech and political representation, which are increasingly ‘outsourced’ to corporations and wealthy individuals. By pretending that corporations are people, “corporate personhood” diminishes human personhood by diluting the rights of humanity with the polluting influence of corporate cash.
Similarly, any law which privileges the “speech” of the wealthy in political affairs mutes and eventually silences the voices of the people.
The heroes of the civil rights movement fought and died so that every human being could achieve political equality. Their sacrifice must not be surrendered on the altar of economic vassalhood. That can only happen when we idealize wealth, and those who pursue it, over justice and those who fight for it.
How can we reshape ourselves into a society that condemns the selfish and blind pursuit of profit at all costs, and which supports and sanctifies the human spirit instead? As Dr. King also said:
"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth."
A Just Economy
The gap between the wealthy and the rest of society is far greater today than it was when Dr. King spoke those words in April, 1967. The Federal minimum wage has plunged in real-dollar terms, leaving millions of people – including seven million children – impoverished, in households with one or two people working full time at the minimum wage.
Our growing inequality is the product of government policy and market tolerance for intolerable wages.
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
What would Dr. King say about today’s increasingly corporatized nation-state? Banking has become divorced from reality. The financial sector no longer needs a ‘real world’ economy of employees and middle-class consumers. It can enrich itself with speculation alone.
Robo-trading. Crime sprees. Incentives to lie. The most human thing about banking in the 21st Century is its vices, which are as human as it gets.
"Congress appropriates military funds with alacrity and generosity. It appropriates poverty funds with miserliness and grudging reluctance. The government is emotionally committed to the war. It is emotionally hostile to the needs of the poor."
Infant mortality for African Americans in 2.5 times that of whites, while the Homeland Security Complex is enormous, growing – and insatiable. Imagine how we’d react if terrorists killed as many Americans as poverty does.
How can we change our priorities and mobilize for basic human needs? The people must act when their elected leaders don't - to restrain runaway greed, reduce our government’s militarism, and demand one system of justice for everyone.
"The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that encourages men to be I-centered rather than thou-centered."
The I-centeredness of American business leaders has reached levels Dr. King could not have imagined. On September 15 it will have been five years since Wall Street ruined the economy and was rescued by the American people. The depth of its subsequent self-absorption and self-pity is a testament to the depth of possibility built into human weakness.
Poverty's up. Unemployment's up. The American family is struggling. And yet, even as American businesses earn runaway profits their leaders are whining. Defense billionaires are pushing a "Fix the Debt" scam to maximize their profits, using the rhetoric of freedom in defense of greed. Those that have so much fight relentlessly for more while people in need go ignored.
Rights for All
Dr. King taught that civil rights and equality must extend to all dimensions of human existence or they have not been fully achieved. And he taught that no one was free as long as anyone remained unfree.
"There is also the violence of (African Americans) having to live in a community and pay higher consumer prices for goods or higher rents for equivalent housing than are charged in white parts of the city."
From payday lenders to auto loans, from groceries to pharmacy supplies, African Americans and other ghettoized minorities continue to pay more for less than other Americans, while the ill health which accompanies life in the ghetto is damaging generation after generation of children.
"An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal."
There may have been one or two promising overtures, but so far "too big to fail” is still “too big to jail.” New York City’s billionaire mayor boasts about his unconstitutional “stop and frisk” policing policy. Drug laws are disproportionately used against minorities, even though bankers laundered drug money by the tens of billions of dollars and not a single one has been prosecuted.
How can full equality be achieved for all? It begins by recognizing that we are still fighting to achieve it, that economic injustice is anything but 'post-racial.'
"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
Poverty had been declining, until the politicians started giving our national wealth away to the privileged few. In 2000 the poverty rate stood at 11.3%, but by 2011 it had reached15 percent. More than 46 million Americans were impoverished. More than one child in five lives in poverty, more than 50 million live in “food insecure” households, and African American poverty rates were nearly three times that of non-Hispanic whites. A college education is still the best ticket out of poverty -- but college is increasingly unaffordable for most Americans.
The production of poverty is fourfold in nature: inadequate education, inadequate opportunity, inadequate healthcare, and prejudice. When will we tear down these pillars of poverty’s “edifice”?
"We must develop a federal program of public works, retraining, and jobs for all - so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened ... There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum and livable income for every American family."
We need to put America back to work. We need to invest in our future, in each other, and in the buildings, highways, and power plants that keep this country moving. We need to end poverty and financial insecurity forever. We have the wealth. Do we have the will?
A New Kind of Leader
"Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus."
Remember those words when you hear the speeches over the next few days. Dr. King was discussing a critic who told him that taking a controversial position on Vietnam might diminish his authority as a civil rights leader and weaken his political influence in Washington. Here's the full quote:
And I had to answer by looking that person into the eye, and say 'I'm sorry sir but you don't know me. I'm not a consensus leader.'
I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of my organization or by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.
When will we become molders of consensus, not its blind followers? When will we look beyond the imprisonment of the current, money-driven political system? How can we become the leaders we’ve been waiting for?
A New Movement
"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."
Too many people have remained silent in the face of ongoing injustice. It’s understandable. We’re living under a hegemony of fear – fear that we’ll lose our jobs, fear that we’ll lose our homes or our credit scores, a nameless fear and dread for the future.
Too many of us privately regret our inaction and silence, without possessing either the moral support or the tools to do what is courageous and right. We can help each other find the courage to do the right thing, if we work together. That’s what movements are for.
"So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"
While we idealize the revolutionaries in our past – at a safe distance - we’ve been trained to recoil at the thought of “extremism” in any form. But ours in an extreme society at an extreme time. That makes silence and implicit consent extreme acts. When will we replace the cynical extremism of complicity - sometimes packaged as "compromise" - with the high-minded “extremism of love and justice”?
"Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding ..."
There is an anger building in this country: an anger of frightened white people against suffering people of color, an anger of old against young, a widespread anger against the greedy and unjust few who exploit the money. But violence once uncaged is difficult to cage again. Technology gives the unjust few a frightening physical power over the majority, and a random act of violence could add moral force to that physical power.
The fight for social justice must remain nonviolent, for everyone's sake. The movement for change must show the way for those who are spiritually and moral sick. Those who exploit the many - the 0.01 percent who subjugate the 99 percent - are acting out the debased values and distorted models they were given as children. They're reflecting social values which are amplified every day in popular culture and the media.
Strike out against the disease of injustice, not its carriers.
"Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily."
The Occupy movement was suppressed by powerful interests – even though it had a majority of the public on its side, before the propagandists went to work. We need to a renewed movement to fight for genuine transformation – of our economy, our politics, and our values.
Dr. King isn’t here to join us in that struggle, but his words are. In this time of commemoration, let’s be inspired by them once again. And then let’s work to realize his revolutionary vision. That's the best way to honor his memory: with action.