Last Martin Luther King Day, after a march to the New Haven Savings Bank to threaten a boycott, students, workers, and community members gathered in the Woolsey Rotunda to speak out about the meaning of the day and the path to making “Jobs and Freedom” a reality in New Haven and in this country. Here (because mine is the only one I have a copy of) is what I said:
Never in this country has the symbol of Dr. King been so popular and so ubiquitous; never in this country has the vision he struggled for faced such tremendous opposition. In this morning’s New York Times, a Reagan archivist argues that Reagan and King were soulmates – that though their politics differed, their values were the same. Such a claim goes beyond cynicism – it is nihilism. It demonstrates a choice to forget who Reagan was – that he kicked off his Presidential campaign in a city in which civil rights activists were murdered and he called for states’ rights and excoriated welfare queens as a threat to our society. But as troublingly, it demonstrates a choice to forget who King was. There was a time when the FBI called King the most dangerous Negro in America. It’s time King was dangerous again.
On Thursday the President of United States made a last minute visit to lay a wreath on King’s grave, and in so doing foisted on the American people the bill for a trip followed by a $2,000 a plate fundraiser. Hundreds of people turned out to protest, and the administration decided to salvage its photo op at Dr. King’s grave by obscuring the view of the social protest, the non-violent resistance, going on behind. And they did it with rows of buses. The searing image of Dr. King’s birthday, 2004, is that of Blacks, Whites, and Latinos mobilized in protest on the other side of buses. What did Dr. King’s last living birthday look like? According to Jesse Jackson, “Perhaps what he did on that day would be instructive to us…he pulled together the coalition – black, white, Jewish, Hispanic, Native American, labor – to work on the Poor People’s Campaign. The object was to demand a job or an income for all Americans. He was driven by a moral imperative to include all and leave no one behind.”
“It is crimminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income,” King preached in Memphis soon before his death, standing with striking sanitation workers. “One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job diseases are rampant.” Today in New Haven, service workers who make hospitals function and graduate student researchers who make medical research happen both find themselves unable to pay for health insurance for themselves and their families.
Dr. King declared that “Negroes will no longer spend our money where we cannot get substantial jobs.” Today this bind remains salient, as does its twin: even as too many are locked out of substantial work in the institutions their business and their taxes fund, too many are forced to work manufacturing products they cannot themselves afford to buy. Wal-Mart employees cannot afford discount Wal-Mart clothing. University employees here in New Haven cannot afford to send their children to college.
One year after the Voting Rights Act and two after the Civil Rights Act, King argued that these “legislative and judicial victories did very little to improve” the ghetto or “penetrate the lower depths of Negro deprivation.” Thirty-six years ago, on his last birthday, Dr. King declared “we have an underclass, that is a reality – an underclass that is not a working class…thousands and thousands of Negroes working on full-time jobs with part-time income…to work on two and three jobs to make ends meet.” The solution, he said the next month, was “a redistribution of economic power.”
“The problem of transforming the ghetto,” Dr. King wrote, “is a problem of power–confrontation of the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo. Now power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. Walter Reuther defined power one day. He said, ‘Power is the ability of a labor union like the UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say, ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.”
It’s not enough to glorify the symbol of the fallen King. We must rededicate ourselves to his vision of social, economic, and democratic change. It is not enough for our leaders to lay wreaths on the man’s grave. We must hold them accountable for a status quo which has deprived too many Americans of all races of the right to freedom from want, of the right to a voice in the decisions which determine their future. It is not enough for the President of this great University to recount that he cried on hearing Dr. King’s “I have a dream”
speech. Yale, as King confidante Rev. James Lawson declared here this summer, must commit itself to becoming fully human.
“A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will thingify them,” Dr. King warned, “make them things…And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, ‘America, you must be born again!'”