Our national day to remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is an opportunity to focus and ramp up the political debate in 2012 on “saving the middle class” and addressing “income inequality” that has been, from all reports, getting worse since the early 1970s.
Over the last year “Tea Bag” politicians, lavishly funded by unlimited corporate money, have sought to make the income gap worse, launching an unprecedented assault on the public sector and collective bargaining.
Tune in to any Republican Presidential debate for the latest ways and means to maximize income insecurity for working and middle income Americans. Or listen to the likes of Boehner and McConnell as they trash the very moderate moves of Obama to mitigate income inequality and preserve a social contract so vital to a free society.
So what would a 21st Century Martin Luther King be saying about all of this?
From his splendid words and many deeds we already can surmise that he would be leading a moral charge to “occupy” every city and town on behalf of the 99%; he would be working with others to close the gap in incomes and establish a level economic playing field.
Most certainly, Rev. King would be lending his voice to an organized labor movement that over time has been shrinking in direct correlation to the falling incomes of most Americans.
Proof of what he would be saying now comes with remembering what he was doing during his last hours on this earth.
4 April 2007
I remember exactly where I was on April 4, 1968, the day the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
That week day, like many others in my senior year at Lynn English High School, I drove to Bradlee’s Department store on the Lynnway in Lynn, Massachusetts to punch in for the evening shift, earning some money before entering Boston University and its College of Basic Studies in the fall of 1968.
The news spread quickly that Thursday evening that King was dead.
It didn’t take long to realize that my shift as a retail clerk would be different from all the others. The store quickly emptied out. Not a customer in sight all night. No need for Mr. Silverman, the shaken and somber store manager, to send me out on outside carriage control. The bullets in Memphis were enough to bring a normal business day to a halt in Lynn and most of the nation. Just five short years before I had come home from junior high on a late summer day to watch King deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech – an event that would inspire so many to become active in politics and protest.
There are many good remembrances of what King said and stood for on his national holiday. But not so much is said on this anniversary of the day he died. It’s worth remembering on his January holiday, April 4th and throughout the year why King was in Memphis on a day I will never forget.
By 1968, Rev. King was widening the concerns of his movement. In his book Where Do We Go From Here? King opposed a Vietnam policy that had begun to break the nation further apart. The lunchroom sit-ins and battles over accommodations and voting rights were giving way to a broader agenda. He was planning a new march on Washington – “the Poor People’s Campaign” — when he decided to take up the cause of 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis, a city of southern segregation, where the white power structure opposed the right to unionize and the Mayor vowed never to bargain in good faith in a way that would give the sanitation workers their dignity.
The strike and a citywide economic boycott were a cause King knew he could not ignore.
King’s prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech on the eve of the assassination is his best known from Memphis. But two weeks earlier, on March 18th, King galvanized support for strikers by saying: “So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs…..One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive.”
Following King’s assassination, the Memphis power structure gave up its intransigence – recognizing the AFSCME union, awarding pay raises and instituting merit promotions.
King’s campaign for striking sanitation workers reaffirmed his greatness at the hour of his death and resonates today in the cause of social and economic justice.
That is worth remembering most from the day he died.