Monday, April 4, 2011

Continue King's dream: support workers rights, stop the war

The April 4 demonstrations for economic justice and April 9 demonstrations against war offer the chance to continue Martin Luther King's legacy. As he declared on April 4, 1967, "Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism."

     Martin Luther King, killed 43 years ago today, is often reduced to a saintly figure, a simple dreamer who advocated civil rights divorced from all other causes. But King was part of a mass movement that combined ideas with action, organizing multiracial non-violent civil disobedience that overthrew Jim Crow in the South. Through the process he not only got arrested dozens of times, but began connecting civil rights with other issues. Even by the time of his famous "I have a dream" speech, civil rights leaders were looking beyond the legal rights that were being won and connecting the fight against racism with the fight for economic justice. As Bayard Rustin, one of King's mentors and the chief organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, described:
“integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation and public accommodation will be of limited extent and duration as long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists. When a racial disparity in unemployment has been firmly established in the course of a century, the change-over to ‘equal opportunities’ does not wipe out the cumulative handicaps of the negro worker. The dynamic that has motivated negroes to withstand with courage and dignity the intimidation and violence they have endured in their own struggle against racism may now be the catalyst which mobilizes all workers behind demands for a broad and fundamental program of economic justice”. 
Or as King put it, "What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can't afford to buy a hamburger." He also went further. Against the advice of Rustin and other civil rights leaders, King began speaking out against the Vietnam War, connecting the war abroad to the war at home. As he said in his speech on April 4, 1967,
"We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor."
     King also spoke out against the impact of the war on the people of Vietnam, in words that could be written for the people of Afghanistan today:
"We increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy."
 The following year, as he planned his Poor People's Campaign to return to Washington demanding economic justice, King went to support 13000 Memphis sanitation workers on strike. It was here, on April 4, 1968, that he was assassinated. The following week the Memphis workers won union recognition and wage increases.

     Today hostility to poverty, racism and militarism is heating up again. Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt detonated revolts across the Middle East and North Africa, and helped inspire Wisconsin workers to stand up against union-busting. Now their struggle has inspired the nation: On April 4, 2011 there are more than 1,000 demonstrations across the US for economic justice, which Martin Luther King III says his father would support. As the organizers of "We Are One" write, 
"Join in solidarity with working people in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and dozens of other states where well-funded, right-wing corporate politicians are trying to take away the rights Dr. King gave his life for: the freedom to bargain, to vote, to afford a college education and justice for all workers, immigrant and native-born. It’s a day to show movement. Teach-ins. Vigils. Faith events. A day to be creative, but clear: We are one."
     This weekend will be another chance to keep Martin Luther King's legacy alive: on April 9 there will be rallies across the US and Canada against war. While there are attacks on public sector workers and budget cuts for healthcare and education, billions are being wasted on the bloody war in Afghanistan, the Vietnam War of our time which has recently reached its My Lai moment. As Seymour Hersh wrote,
"In photographs released by the German weekly Der Spiegel, an American soldier is looking directly at the camera with a wide grin. His hand is on the body of an Afghan whom he and his fellow soldiers appear to have just killed, allegedly for sport...We saw photographs, too, at My Lai 4, where a few dozen American soldiers slaughtered at least five hundred South Vietnamese mothers, children, and old men and women in a long morning of unforgettable carnage more than four decades ago."
     Despite support for the war by US Democrats and Republicans, and Canadian Liberals and Conservatives, a growing majority of Americans and Canadians (including growing numbers of troops and military families) are against the war and want the troops home. As Obama starts his re-election campaign, and Canadian parties enter the midway point of their election campaign--with the NDP being the only party to call for an end to the war--April 9 is an important chance to display the majority opposition to the war and make it an election issue.

     Martin Luther King was part of a revolutionary wave that swept the globe: the year 1968 saw student protests and urban revolts from France to the US, uprisings from Czechoslovakia to Pakistan, and the Tet offensive that galvanized the national liberation movement in Vietnam--to name but a few. This year we've already seen mass demonstrations against austerity from London to Wisconsin, revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, and ongoing revolt across the Middle East and North Africa. By learning from King we can continue his legacy:
"These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. 'The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.' We in the West must support these revolutions."

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