“…one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a period of great social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1)).”
This week we celebrate the birth of one of our Country’s greatest visionaries, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A legacy bequeaths to the great man the title of “father” of the American Civil Rights Movement, which is a considerable bequest. But this label is insufficient to encompass the accomplishments and dreams of the man, which transcribe a far greater scope than is generally acknowledged.
Dr. King was also an adamant anti-war activist and a leading proponent of equality, both civil and economic for people of all races. In the political backdrop of an establishment intent on war and appeasement of the wealthy class, Dr. King was frequently labeled by his detractors as a Communist sympathizer.
“Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. America has not met its responsibilities and its obligations to the poor (MLK).”
On June 2nd, 1959, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the commencement speech at Morehouse College, his alma mater, entitled “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.” In this early oratory, Dr. King lays out many of the principles that he will expound upon in later years, but one theme stands out and is highlighted in the title of his speech. The human race is in the midst, for better or worse, of profound social, economic and environmental change, and many of us are “sleeping” through it to our collective detriment. Mr. King’s speech is as relevant today as it was over 50 years ago.
The derogatory labeling of people who threaten the establishment as “communist,” “socialist” or “fascist” is not unique to contemporary political vitriol. It is a tool that has been employed throughout modern history to denigrate and otherwise discredit those who threaten the status quo elite establishments. It is a powerful tool to employ among the sleeping masses who are swayed in their slumber by emotional rhetoric rather than wakeful discussion. Inaccurate labeling does not change what Dr. King viewed as moral imperative.
“There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right (MLK).”
Sadly, since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., few have had his courage to stand up against the flow of misguided, manipulated and somnambulant public opinion to give voice to what is truly right. In the than 40 years since Dr. King’s death, prejudice, bigotry and social and economic inequality are still rampant in America.
The face of the bigot has changed over the years, but his disease remains the same. Some say Mexican is the new black. The treatment of immigrants in this country rivals that of our infamous relationship with former slaves. And while we celebrate our first African American President, the irrational anger from the Tea Party movement, that vows to “take back our country,” begs the question, “Take it back from whom?” While our President is oxymoronically depicted by the same groups as both fascist and communist, such blatant illogic is a poorly-disguised and oddly politically-correct swipe at his handsome light brown “otherness.” The emotionally charged political Right are like zombie armies of the walking dead, driven by angry hatred that has little basis in waking reality.
The new bigots of the Tea Party revolution have a new target, the poor. Whether one is poor Latino, African American or White, all those living in poverty are tarred with the same brush of disdain. Conservative darling pundit Bill O’Reilly says the poor are “irresponsible and lazy.”
With the recent economic collapse, some estimates put “real” unemployment at around 20%. While O’Reilly and others who would deny the unemployed any living benefits and would urge them to go out and get a job, the truth is that only one job is currently available for every 5 “officially” unemployed people. This actually translates to one job for every 10 people who need work and doesn’t even take into account those people who are working full time but don’t make enough to live off. O’Reilly his ilk need to refresh their mathematics and rethink their hateful logic. Over 40 million people, almost half of them children, are now living in poverty in the richest country on Earth. Are these impoverished children “irresponsible and lazy?”
“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps(MLK).”
Perhaps not ironically, one could argue that it is the glorified wealthy who are for the most part “irresponsible and lazy.” While Wall Street executives commanding 7 and 8 figure salaries trashed the economy, The CEOs of mega corporations earned similar compensations playing golf, jet setting and wining and dining. Many of this country’s wealthy inherited their good fortune and haven’t worked a day in their lives. Contrast these chosen few with the millions of American workers who go to work for minimum wage every day in an valiant but impossible effort to put food on familial tables. Irrationally, many of the sleepwalkers who deride government assistance to the poor can actually count themselves among the numbers they would seek to slander.
While American children are eating out of dumpsters, the same right wing pundits don’t seem to have a problem with spending money elsewhere. Dr. King points out the discrepancy in the United States’ spending priorities in his day that unfortunately mirror modern government spending priorities. “This day we are spending five-hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier… while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken…” Nothing has changed since Dr. King’s time. Well over a trillion dollars has been spent to date on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The estimated $370 billion spent in Afghanistan amounts to approximately $12 thousand for each of the 30 million men, women and children living in Afghanistan today (2). This expenditure takes place in a country where the average annual income for a head of household is $860 (3). The same trillion dollars spent on killing people in foreign lands could have paid for more than enough food, shelter and medical treatment for all of America’s and Afghanistan’s less fortunate.
In some respects, America today has advanced since Dr. King graced this landscape with his presence. Civil liberties for African Americans have improved significantly. We are now proud as a nation to have elected our first African American President. But one could argue our prejudices have simply found new targets. As a whole, in terms of equality and justice for all, we have made no progress since Dr. King’s day. A person living in poverty today has as few opportunities as a black child growing up in the segregated South did in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The economic divide between rich and poor today is the greatest it has been since the Great Depression, and it is growing.
“One day we will have to stand before the God of history, and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we have built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the sky. We made our submarines to penetrate the ocean depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.
It seems I can hear the God of history saying, “That was not enough! But I was hungry and ye fed me not, I was naked and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto Me.” That’s the question facing America today (MLK).”
America sleeps, and in our dreamlike state many of our masses continue confuse heated rhetoric with what is morally right. The stage cries out for a new brave prophet to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps. Rest in peace Dr. King. May we one day wake up and live up to your beautiful dreams.
1- All MLK quotations in this post are taken from the Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution sermon. The complete transcript of this sermon is available on the World Wide Web at http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/remaining_awake_through_a_great_revolution/
2- Figures from the National Priorities Project on the World Wide Web at http://costofwar.com/en/
3- Figures from the World Bank on the World Wide Web at http://search.worldbank.org/data?qterm=Afghanistan&language=EN&format=html