“HOLLER IF YOU HEAR ME”


Just finished Michael Eric Dyson’s Tupac book Holler If You Hear Me. As in his book on MLK, Dyson draws out radical intentions and implications of his subject’s work, wrestles with the problematics of his life, and considers what the mythology that’s developed since his death says about the culture around him. The discussion of Tupac’s relationship with his mother, Afeni Shakur, brings together several threads of the book: the contradictory meanings of black masculinity in Tupac’s work and his thinking; the currents of rage, indictment, forgiveness, and affirmation in his music; the personal as political; the relationship between the ’60s Black Panther generation and the next one. If anything, the book suffers from Dyson’s tendency to over-explain the significance of each sentence from Tupac. Good read, and I learned a lot from it.

One passage of interest:
Continue reading

POSITIVE PEACE WHICH IS THE PRESENCE OF JUSTICE

From Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

More on MLK Day here.

SYMPATHY FOR THE SATYR?

Our right-wing friends have made outrageous attempts to claim the mantle of MLK an MLK Day tradition. But this attempt by Ron Paul’s supporters should still make your blood boil.

Makes you wonder whether Ron Paul’s 10,000+ MLK Day donors are ignorant that MLK was gunned down marching with sanitation workers striking to demanding a union to win safety on the job when libertarians would tell them to suck it up or go work somewhere else. Makes you wonder whether they’re indifferent that MLK faced death threats because he demanded government intervention against bigotry while good libertarians decried civil rights laws as tyranny.

It also makes you wonder whether they missed that issue of Ron Paul’s newsletter describing Martin Luther King as

the man who replaced the evil of forced segregation with the evil of forced integration…not only a world-class adulterer, he also seduced underage girls and boys…lying socialist satyr…

POSITIVE PEACE

In a discussion thread at the New Haven Independent, one of the anti-union posters is invoking Martin Luther King and calling for “a peaceful solution.”

Fortunately, there’s a peaceful solution the Yale – New Haven Hospital could agree to tomorrow: card-check neutrality. Let’s keep in mind it was MLK who warned us against seeking “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” rather than “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He also said: “You see, no labor is really menial unless you’re not getting adequate wages…if you’re getting a good wage, as I know that through some unions they’ve brought it up…that isn’t menial labor. What makes it menial is the income, the wages.”

He wrote the first quote in jail in Birmingham. He said the second one at a rally for SEIU 1199 – his “favorite union” – in 1968.

OPTIMISM AND OUTRAGE

From Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You:

We have surrendered to romantic images of King at the Lincoln Memorial inspiring America to reach, as he reached with outstretched arms, for a better future. All the while we forget his poignant warning against gradual racial progress and his remarkable threat of revolution should our nation fail to keep its promises. Still, like all other great black orators, King understood the value of understating and implying difficult truths. He knew how to drape hard realities in soaring rhetoric that won the day because it struck the right balance of outrage and optimism. To be sure, we have been long on King’s optimism while shortchanging his outrage.

ANYBODY CAN SERVE

Anya Kamanetz has a great piece in the Times criticizing the role of unpaid internships in reinforcing inequality and discouraging assertion of material needs by employees and future employees. As she observes, these internships, because they require taking an economic loss during the summer to pay for cost of living while receiving no wage, function as a luxury good available largely to the already privileged – and at the same time, they serve as crucial qualifications for future employment. So they make it easier for the most fortunate among us to stay that way (inadequate financial aid systems are part of the problem as well). And at the same time, these internships support the sense that if you truly care about something, you shouldn’t care about getting paid for it. Which is easier not to care about when you don’t need the money. As Dana Goldblatt observed, “By letting myself be exploited, I’m actually exploiting others.”

Over at Campus Progress, Asheesh notes that progressive organizations are often stretched thin as it is. That’s indisputable. But the unwillingness of so many groups on the left to economically support those potential summer interns who can’t work for free evidences a failure to take a long-term strategic interest in building our base and diversifying the leadership of our movements. And it’s an unfortunate example of the lack in many corners of the modern American left of a systematic account of class and the role it plays in modern American life.

That problem was all too clear when I asked the president of a leading environmental group why the movement wasn’t more diverse and she responded that her group could only recruit “joiners.”

It’s also clear in the valorization by many on the left of an ethic of volunteerism as the ultimate foundation of civic life. I’m all for community service. But statements that make unpaid service out to be the most noble of activities obscure this country’s dependence on the men and women who do critical work for long hours teaching children and caring for patients and serving food and get paid (though not enough) – because if they weren’t being paid, they couldn’t provide for themselves and their families. Volunteerism, as it all too often gets discussed, is a classed ideal, and its valorization to the exclusion of other forms of service leads us to identify as community leaders primarily wealthy people who make contributions that require little sacrifice.

Absolutely, everyone should seek ways to use their time away from work to reduce injustice – though having students clean the windows of public schools together once a year is a less effective way to do that than having them get together and try to figure out why no one in their community is being hired to clean the schools’ windows and how that should be changed. But whether it’s community service or political advocacy, progressives do a disservice to our values and to our community when we valorize first the work that doesn’t pay (this is part of why I’m so excited about Students for a New American Politics).

In high school, when I led our school’s contingent to Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King Day of Service, we got T-shirts with Dr. King’s quote that “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve.” King was absolutely right. But his point is often misunderstood. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve,” he continues, “You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermo-dynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

King’s words are a much-needed reminder that we can best overcome divisions through shared projects of social justice. Unfortunately, just as imposing professional qualifications on service would render the ideal inaccessible to many people, imposing the requirement that service be uncompensated to be laudable reinforces already existing divisions. So does the claim made by too many liberals that social justice is about selfless acts for others by those with nothing to gain themselves. Such a definition will always privilege those who have less stake in their struggles and obscure those who take tremendous risks to fight for a stronger community for themselves and their neighbors.

JOBS AND FREEDOM

Martin Luther King called for a guaranteed minimum standard of living for all Americans; a generation later, our political leaders have presided over a bipartisan retreat from this country’s social contract with its most vulnerable citizens. King called for a broad-based movement against bigotry, militarism, and economic injustice; a generation later, the left remains beset by the divisions he worked to overcome, and by the ones he himself failed to critically engage. King called for an audacious, visionary struggle to win the seemingly unachievable; a generation later, we spend much of our energy working to protect what’s been won against further erosion. There was a time when the FBI called King the most dangerous Negro in America. It’s time King was dangerous again.

ROSA PARKS, MISREMEMBERED

Rosa Parks died yesterday at age 92. Over the days to come, we’ll hear a lot of very-much deserved prasie for Parks’ refusal to abide bigotry and her courage in the service of a cause. Unfortunately, we’ll also hear a new round of recitations of the stubborn myth that Parks was an anonymous, apolitical woman who spontaneously refused to yield to authority and in so doing inspired a movement. The truth, as Aldon Morris wrote in his book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, is that a decade earlier

in the 1940s Mrs. Parks had refused several times to comply with segregation rules on the buses. In the early 1940s Mrs. Parks was ejected from a bus for failing to comply. The very same bus driver who ejected her that time was the one who had her arrested on December 1, 1955…She began serving as secretary for the local NAACP in 1943 and still held that post when arrested in 1955…In the early 1940s Mrs. Parks organized the local NAACP Youth Council…During the 1950s the youth in this organization attempted to borrow books from a white library. They also took rides and sat in the front seats of segregated buses, then returned to the Youth Council to discuss their acts of defiance with Mrs. Parks.

This history is not hidden. But the Times’ obituary describes Parks’ arrest nonetheless as an event which “turned a very private woman into a reluctant symbol and torchbearer…” Parks was certainly reluctant to see too personal valoration of her as heroine distract from the broader movement. But she was not private about her politics. And her refusal to give up her bus seat was nothing new for her. As she would later tell an interviewer, “My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day.”

The myth of Parks as a pre-political seamstress who was too physically worn out to move has such staying power not because there’s any factual basis but because it appeals to an all-too popular narrative about how social change happens in America: When things get bad enough, an individual steps up alone, unsupported and unmediated, and spontaneously resists. And then an equally spontaneous movement follows. Such a myth makes good TV, but it’s poor history.

Movement-building takes hard work, no matter how righteous the cause or how desperate the circumstances.

The pivotal moments of the 60’s civil rights movement, as Morris recounts in his book, were not random stirrings or automatic responses. Most of them were carefully planned events which followed months of organizing and were conceived with an eye to political tactics and media imagery. There were even some long meetings involved.

That shouldn’t be seen as a dirty little secret, because strategic organizing and planned imagery shouldn’t be seen as signs of moral impurity. Organizations, like the people in them, each have their faults (Ella Baker was frequently and justifiably furious with the sexism and condescension of much of CORE’s leadership). But the choice of individuals to work together and find common cause in common challenges doesn’t become less pure or less honest or less noble when they choose to do it through political organizations. And there’s nothing particularly progressive about a historical perspective in which Rosa Parks’ defiance of racism is made less genuine by the knowledge that she was secretary of the NAACP.

The myth of Rosa Parks as a private apolitical seamstress, like the myth of Martin Luther King as a race-blind moderate, has real consequences as we face the urgent civil rights struggles of today. Seeing acts of civil disobedience like Parks’ as spontaneous responses to the enormity of the injustice justifies the all-too common impulses to refuse our support for organized acts of resistance and regard organized groups as inherently corrupt. Those are impulses people like Rosa Parks had to confront and overcome amongst members of her community long before she ever made national headlines for refusing to give up her seat on the bus.

Not much new to say about the State of the Union Address because, well, it didn’t say much new. Substance-wise, it was more of the same, rhetorically, it was flat, and as for the delivery – well, no surprises there. Bush is still trying to pull a fast one on the American people with his social security numbers; when he said that FDR could not have imagined today’s economy, it was hard not to wince at the steady rollback of the New Deal of which Bush’s agenda is but the latest example. His allusions to FDR in defending his foreign policy were equally unpersuasive. If Bush expects plaudits for courage for politely suggesting to his allies in Saudi Arabia that their people get more opportunities to express themselves (meaning what? Voting for American Idol?), then we really are defining deviancy down. The moment shared between the Iraqi and American women was indeed poignant. It was, I couldn’t help thinking, an interesting echo of the moment shared between grieving Iraqi and American mothers in Farenheit 9/11. Whether one agrees more with George Bush’s or Michael Moore’s view of the architects and consequences of that war, there’s a great deal of chosen and unchosen sacrifice and suffering that should be sobering for all of us. Bush’s stated commitment to the advancement of liberty, of course, didn’t stop him from once more floating the writing of bigotry into the constitution. Just another reason that Bush’s eager exclamations of liberty fell as flat as his last line about the long and twisting road to freedom, a pale shadow of a truly great American’s promise (more urgent and more seemingly distant than ever) that “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”

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!'”

On April 3, 1968 Dr. King declared:

We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say “God sent us here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.

This morning, following a righteous service at First and Summerfield Church, hundreds of New Haveners of all backgrounds marched to the New Haven Savings Bank to declare their plans to withdraw their savings unless the Bank changes its current destructive course. Afterwards clergy and community members joined undergraduates in Yale’s Woolsey Rotunda, where a year ago students were threatened with arrest for leafletting, and spoke our about Dr. King’s vision for progressive radical social change and the work ahead of us to realize it. Because it’s not enough to have a dream – you have to be willing to fight for it.

In today’s Times Reagan archivist Kiron K. Skinner takes the occasion of Martin Luther King Day to claim MLK as Reagan’s soulmate:

Dr. King invoked God-given and constitutional rights in defense of extending civil rights to every man. He believed in his country’s distinct ability to maintain a steadfast commitment to its values even when institutional realities pointed in other directions. Dr. King personified the American creed. That it was Ronald Reagan who bestowed on Dr. King the honor of a national holiday should no longer come as a surprise.

Skinner acknowledges that Reagan first came under the national radar pushing the explicitly anti-Civil Rights Goldwater candidacy, but argues that Reagan’s personal sympathetic behavior towards Blacks and his shared vocabulary of God, democracy, and constitution constitutes more common ground than division. It’s an absurd argument which depends on the falacious reasoning that

In the president’s mind, the values Dr. King championed trumped political differences.

The distinction between “politics” and “values” is always suspect, but few times has it been manipulated more cynically than here in arguing that whether or not Black men and women are to be systematically discriminated against in all spheres of life on account of race and poverty is a more superficial issue than whether the American constitution is suitable for appeals to political change.

Skinner obscures the historical Reagan, who kicked off his Presidential Campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights activists had been brutally murdered, with a call for “states’ rights” and an excoriation of “welfare queens.”

And Skinner obscures the historical King, the radical who deserves celebration today, who wrote:

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked.”