Martin Luther King: A Day for the Ninety-Nine Percent

Konrad M. Hamilton

January 16, 2012

Presented by Konrad M. Hamilton at the Knox College Winter Term Convocation in observance of Martin Luther King Day, January 16, 2012. Notes follow the text.

Introduction

Over the last ten years, we have tried to make these celebrations more than simply a remembrance of great deeds in the past, and to understand the ways in which Martin Luther King's legacy continues to be of use to Americans and people around the world today.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first gained prominence in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, but his commitment to human rights and to America was never just about racial segregation or the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize because of his ability to turn his fight against racial oppression in a small Southern town into a much larger and broader fight for human rights. Today, with this American national holiday, we pay particular tribute to what Dr. King taught us about our democracy; our rights and our responsibilities as citizens of that democracy.

Martin Luther King and Economic Justice

Dr. King was assassinated almost forty-four years ago, on April 4th, 1968. Many of us know that he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. But how many of us know what Dr. King was doing in Memphis? Why was he there? Not to pressure Congress to outlaw segregated public facilities, as he had done in Birmingham in 1963; nor to help secure voting rights, as he had done in Selma in 1965. Not even to lend his voice to the anti-war movement, for which he had become a major spokesman. Martin Luther King died in Memphis supporting striking garbage workers in a campaign for economic justice. Had he lived after Memphis, Dr. King planed to "occupy" Washington D.C., as the leader of the Poor Peoples' March. "We [will be] coming [to the nation's capital]," he announced days before his assassination, "to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights...life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn't have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness..." (1)

It would indeed be no exaggeration to say that economic justice in America was the concern most on Dr. King's mind during the final days of his life.

Four days before he died, Reverend King delivered what became his last Sunday sermon, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. In this sermon, Dr. King told the Parable of Dives and Lazarus. Dives was a wealthy man living in a great mansion. Lazarus was poor and sick, and begged for help at Dives' gate every day. Yet Dives ignored the suffering of Lazarus, and as a consequence, went to hell when he died. "Dives didn't go to hell because he was rich," King told the congregation. Dives' downfall, said King, was that he "didn't realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother, Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he... passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him."

"And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world..." admonished King. "This is America's opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it..." (2)

When Dr. King spoke these words, America was in the middle of unprecedented prosperity. Unemployment was at 3.6%  (3), and the rate of poverty was under 13% and declining. (4) If Dr. King could see the state of economic affairs in America today, what would he say? A recent census bureau report gives us the shocking and tragic news that as of a few months ago, nearly half of all Americans - almost 50% of us - are now either classified as low income or living in poverty. (5) By contrast, the wealthiest 1% of Americans make on average 36 times what the average middle-class household takes home -- the median household income.(6) In 1968, Dr. King admonished the middle-class to take care of the poor. But in 2012, as economic inequality and insecurity continue to grow in America, it is becoming increasingly unclear which of us are Lazarus and which of us are Dives.

There is little doubt that Dr. King would be greatly disappointed and saddened at the rise of poverty, the shrinking of the middle class, and the staggering growth in the gap between the super-rich and the rest of us over the last forty years. But Martin Luther King was not one to give into despair - above all, he believed in actively confronting the problem. So what can we as ordinary people draw from Dr. King's legacy as we face our current situation?

Presidential Action Comes from Engaged Citizens

In this election season, it might benefit us to remember that Dr. King never endorsed specific political candidates or parties. While he fought consistently and vigorously for the right of all Americans to vote, he also refused to depend upon presidents, Congress or political parties to bring about the changes that he wanted to see. King, and those who marched with him, believed that true change does not come from politicians at the top, but from the pressure generated through citizen activism at the grassroots.

President John Kennedy is often remembered as a champion of the civil rights movement - yet many forget that Kennedy broke his campaign promises to take speedy executive action on civil rights once he assumed office. Only after Dr. King and his followers occupied the streets and jails in Birmingham, did President Kennedy begin to follow through on the pledges that he had made as a candidate - culminating in the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon Johnson, pushed the 1965 Voting Rights act through Congress, guaranteeing every American the right to vote, but only after Dr. King and his followers focused national attention on the issue by occupying the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

And now we turn to President Barack Obama. When I spoke at the King day celebration in 2009, days before the inauguration of President Obama, I upset some people when I said that we might have to follow Dr. King's example and take to the streets to get President Obama to follow through on his campaign promises. Some felt that I was being unfair to the new president, failing to realize the revolutionary potential of the first black president in American history. Surely, Martin Luther King would see Obama as the culmination of his life work, I was told.

Of course, the mood of the country today is somewhat different than three years ago. Bill Moyers, in a recent article critical of the man he once supported, wrote with disgust that "Barack Obama criticizes bankers as ‘fat cats,'" but "has raised more money from employees of banks, hedge funds and private equity managers than any Republican candidate, including Mitt Romney..."(7) Cornel West, a vocal supporter of Obama in 2008, has since said that the president "has now aligned himself with forces that promote the abandonment of poor people and the neglect of working people...he is in the process of becoming a pawn of big finance and a puppet of big business." (8)

Well, I certainly have much that I could say about President Obama, the Congress, and those from the loyal opposition who vowed from day one to obstruct anything that came from the White House. But if Dr. King were among us today, I don't think that he would spend much time cataloging the shortcomings of the leadership class in America. I think that he would be much more interested in talking about those activists in America and around the world who call themselves the Occupy Movement, using the non-violent direct-action techniques that Dr. King pioneered so many decades ago.

When the American expression of the Occupy movement first appeared in New York City in the fall, it was initially ridiculed by pundits as a confused group of people with no goals and no plan - similar to what critics had first said about King's Montgomery movement in 1955. But like the Montgomery movement, a small group of determined people, profoundly dissatisfied with the status quo, has grown into a broad-based articulation of the needs of the unemployed, the foreclosed upon, the sick, and all of us in the 99% who want to work for our living, and ask only a fair playing field in return. Nurses, teachers, medical students, computer engineers, firemen; union members and independent business owners; young, middle-aged and old; Americans of all races and religions, political affiliations are standing up and saying "enough" to a system that no longer seems to work for the majority of its people.

Using a combination of physical occupations of public space and campaigns in mainstream and social media, the occupy movement has already changed the political and economic landscape in unanticipated ways. In December, movement activists began occupying foreclosed homes across America, demanding that lenders renegotiate predatory mortgages. Occupy activists are campaigning for the reinstitution of the Glass-Steagall Act and other legislation to ensure that banks cannot use customers money for dubious investment and speculation schemes. Since the Occupy movement has been encouraging Americans to move their money out of commercial banks, hundreds of thousands of new accounts have been opened in non-profit credit unions. Bank of America and other banks have had to delay or abandon plans to institute arbitrary new fees and increases on their customers since the Occupy movement has made banks a target of criticism. In some American cities, experiments in "participatory budgeting" are underway, in which neighborhood assemblies make decisions on how to spend the discretionary part of city budgets instead of city councils or city managers. (9)

After months of sustained Occupy Movement activity across the country, political leaders are starting to take notice. Just like Kennedy before him, Obama has begun to respond to the demands of citizens made in the streets. "For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded," he told his audience in Kansas early last month. "Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people...Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments - wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paycheques that weren't - and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up." (10)

And the current president isn't the only one listening to the voices from the streets. Those who want to take his job are listening too. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, running as a conservative, has for weeks now been assailing rival candidate Mitt Romney with charges of being a "predatory capitalist," who throws workers out into the streets. Conservative Texas governor Rick Perry went a step further, insisting that candidate Romney is in fact a "vulture capitalist." Mr. Romney, not to be outdone, no longer refers to President Obama as a "socialist" - now Obama is a "crony capitalist." It has reached the point that the Wall Street Journal editorialized last week that GOP candidates needed to stop "embarrassing themselves" by bashing the rich and the free enterprise system, comparing the candidates to Obama and Michael Moore. the Journal declined to say which comparison was worse, but the point had been made. (11)

Will any of this election-year rhetoric actually turn into policies that deliver the decent healthcare, housing, education, worker and investor protection, and the economic opportunity that Americans have been promised over and over? I believe that the answer to that question has to do not only with what we do in the voting booth, but also with what we continue to do in the streets of America. The same streets that Martin Luther King used decades ago to remind America's political leaders who they represent, and who they are beholden to.

Dr. King gave us one of our most important lessons in American political behavior; not only by making speeches in front of cheering crowds, but by non-violently occupying the streets of America until the powerful responded. When all is said and done, politicians - whether they are Presidents, members of Congress, or state and local officials - balance competing interests, in order to arrive at some kind of solution. That's what they do - it's in their job descriptions. If those in power fail to hear the unvarnished demands of ordinary citizens, and hear only the views of the rich and powerful 1%, then the policies that they create have little chance of being what is best for the people. Martin Luther King taught us that this is why citizens need to speak up, often and loudly - sometimes with our feet and our bodies as well as our words.

Conclusion

The reason above all other reasons, that we give Martin Luther King a national holiday is because he showed us how to exercise our collective power and responsibilities as American citizens. This was not brand new knowledge. What gave Dr. King's methods of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience their power was that they grew out of and embodied the tradition of activist citizenship, descending from the Founders of our republic down through Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones and countless others - famous and obscure - who believed that the truest way to show one's love for one's country is to be an active participant in its governance. These methods, values and spirit of commitment are relevant still, and this is what we come to celebrate today.

Let me be clear. Dr. King risked his life to guarantee that all Americans would have the right to vote, and we should all respect that. All of us should study the positions of various candidates for political office, work for them if we choose, and then cast our vote on election day. But our duties as citizens do not end at the ballot box - our duties begin there. Perhaps Bill Moyers sums it up best:

"So take heart from the past, and don't ever count the people out. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution created extraordinary wealth at the top and excruciating misery at the bottom. Embattled citizens rose up... Not content to wring their hands and cry ‘Woe is us,' everyday citizens researched the issues, Organized to educate their neighbors, held rallies, made speeches, petitioned and canvassed, marched and marched again... They laid down the now-endangered markers of a civilized society: legally ordained minimum wages, child labor laws, workers' safety and compensation laws, pure foods and safe drugs, Social Security, Medicare and rules that promote competitive markets over monopolies and cartels. The lesson is clear: Democracy doesn't begin at the top; it begins at the bottom..." (12)

As we begin this new year, may the example and lessons of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. occupy your thoughts, your spirit, and your actions.

Notes:

1 "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," in James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 274.

2 "Remaining Awake," pp. 273-274.

3 U.S. Bureau of Labor, http://data.bls.gov/timeseries

4 Congressional Budget Office, http://www.cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=10775

5 NBC News, broadcast December 15, 2011.

6 Average real after-tax household income. In contrast, the bottom 20% saw their ARATH incomes rise 18%. In 1980 the wealthiest 1% of Americans made on average 12.5 times the median income; 2006 (last year for which figures are available) 36 times median household income. Ian Ayers and Aaron S. Edlin, "Don't Tax the Rich. Tax Inequality Itself," New York Times, December 19, 2011 (Kindle version).

7 Bill Moyers, "How Wall Street Occupied America: Why the rich keep getting richer and our democracy is getting poorer," The Nation, November 21, 2011 (Kindle version), p.2.

8 http://youtu.be/kgvgHQMV6Mc

9 Laird Harrison and Michelle Nichols, "Occupy Movement Develops New Strategies for 2012," posted January 9, 2012 http://www.newyorkinvestment.net/policy/occupy-movement-develops-new-strategies-for-2012/; Erik Olin Wright and Jamie Stern-Weiner, "Occupy Wall Street and Transformational Strategy," New Left Project, January 6, 2012.

10 "Full Text of Barack Obama's Speech in Osawatomie Kansas," The Guardian, December 6, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk

11 "The Bain Capital Bonfire," Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2012 (Kindle version).

12 Moyers, pp. 15-16.