Monday, January 21, 2013

Martin Luther King’s Progressive Legacy

Today is the official ceremony for President Obama’s second inauguration and the national celebration of Martin Luther King Day. The holiday, which was not officially observed in all 50 states until 2000, honors the civil rights leader and nonviolent activist who led the struggle for African American equality, and against militarism, materialism, and poverty. And while conservatives (and even gun advocates) have seized on King’s legacy to promote their own political agendas, King explicitly espoused, pursued, and defended progressive values:

  • King Died Supporting A Public Sector Union’s Strike: In King’s final sermon, he called upon the people of Memphis to join together in support of the Memphis sanitation worker’s AFSCME-led strike. “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” King preached. “when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there.”
  • King Compared Poverty To “Cannibalism” And Called For It’s “Direct And Immediate Abolition”: King believed that poverty “is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization.” He called for America to abolish poverty by guaranteeing “white and Negro alike” a minimum income.
  • King Called War Funding A “Demonic Sucking Tube” Undermining Poverty Programs: King opposed the Vietnam war in no small part because it diverted precious resources away from anti-poverty programs. “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. . . . Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”
  • King Said Poverty Made Him “Question The Capitalistic Economy”: King called for a radical restructuring of America’s economic system. “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. . . . 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?’”

Obama will use two Bibles when he takes the oath of office, one owned by Abraham Lincoln, and another by King. “It’s almost like fate and history coming together,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who worked alongside King in the fight for civil rights struggle. “If it hadn’t been for Martin Luther King Jr., there would be no Barack Obama as president.”

The only other time a presidential inauguration coincided with the King holiday was in 1997. In his speech, President Bill Clinton invoked the civil rights icon, saying, “Thirty-four years ago, the man whose life we celebrate today spoke to us down there at the other end of this Mall in words that moved the conscience of a nation.” “Martin Luther King’s dream was the American Dream. His quest is our quest: the ceaseless striving to live out our true creed. Our history has been built on such dreams and labors.”

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