Monday, April 4, 2011

Dr. King's Forgotten Legacy: Economic Justice for all and Peace

43 years ago, Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. What he was doing in Memphis is probably not as well known as his famous, "I Have a Dream" speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or his letter written from the Birmingham jail...Everyone knows he was a civil rights icon, the face of the civil rights movement. The schools teach that he was primarily concerned about civil rights and ending segregation, but that he did so in a non-threatening way that won the hearts and minds of those who may not have had a direct stake in the struggle. A biography from Louisiana State is typical in my humble opinion in that while something is said about his defense of the rights of workers, it is obscured in the middle of the paragraph and reduced to one sentence. While I am grateful it is included, it reminds me of important news being reduced to page A16 in the New York Times or whatever.

Dr. King was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, by James Earl Ray. James Earl Ray was arrested in London, England on June 8, 1968 and returned to Memphis, Tennessee to stand trial for the assassination of Dr. King. On March 9, 1969, before coming to trial, he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to ninety-nine years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. Dr. King had been in Memphis to help lead sanitation workers in a protest against low wages and intolerable conditions. His funeral services were held April 9, 1968, in Atlanta at Ebenezer Church and on the campus of Morehouse College, with the President of the United States proclaiming a day of mourning and flags being flown at half-staff. The area where Dr. King was entombed is located on Freedom Plaza and surrounded by the Freedom Hall Complex of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site, a 23 acre area was listed as a National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1977, and was made a National Historic Site on October 10, 1980 by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In this post, I want to ponder the establishment's co-opting of Dr. King, but from a viewpoint of the California state standards. Now, I've been highly critical of the state standards, noting my frustration of how "politically safe" they truly are. Now, granted the students will learn about Dr. King's legacy, but what they might not learn and what is glaringly missing from the standards is his fight for the right of public workers to unionize, his fight for economic justice for all, not just African-Americans...Others have noted the "Santa Clausification" of Dr. King into a non-threatening figure who preached love and non-violence and eternal patience. He has become someone who turned the other cheek but persevered with the help of figures on top like LBJ to effectively slay the dragon of racism, or so we are to believe.

US11.10.4. Examine the role of civil rights advocates (e.g., A. Philip Randolph,
Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, James Farmer, Rosa Parks),
including the significance of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and
“I Have a Dream” speech.

What I feel should be added to the standard is a focus on the people who made up the movement as well. I get it that often movements need leaders to guide them...that is fine, but focus should be put on the unnamed activists who marched in the streets, who braved the fire hoses and the dogs, and who risked life and limb to fight for change, the change that they demanded as the birthright of every American.

The text we use in the classroom I observed in last month is History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals! Now don't get me wrong. I believe that it goes quite a notable way in detailing the struggle for equality from the perspective of those who do not fall under the dominant group, such as women, feminists, and most impressively gay Americans. History Alive's treatment of the Stonewall riots as the beginnings of the gay rights movement is notable considering that we live in an environment where "concerned" parents might raise objections if anything related to the gay rights movement is mentioned. Chapter 47, entitled, "The Widening Struggle" is an excellent read that I would use in my future classroom. Likewise, History Alive's text mentions that Dr. King went to Memphis to "support a sanitation workers' strike," but it barely mentions his passionate speeches regarding poverty and the shame that millions in America went to bed hungry. History Alive reports, "In his sermon, King spoke frankly about racism:"

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle...Something positive must be done. The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism.

Yet, they could have included this portion of that very same sermon...

But I say to you this morning, my friends, there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes God’s children sleeping on the sidewalks at night? In Bombay more than a million people sleep on the sidewalks every night. In Calcutta more than six hundred thousand sleep on the sidewalks every night. They have no beds to sleep in; they have no houses to go in. How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population of more than five hundred million people, some four hundred and eighty million make an annual income of less than ninety dollars a year. And most of them have never seen a doctor or a dentist.
and during a time when the Vietnam War was still raging, the textbook could have included

I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor. 
It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.
Now, count me as a cynical person, but I wonder if the establishment's co-opting of Dr. King was to link him solely to African-Americans and to celebrate his struggle against segregation and overt racism. Now segregation was an instance of blatant institutional racism, that is true. Anyone with an education will admit that, but what is being touted in this so-called "post-racial" era is that racism is a thing of the past. Dr. King went a long way in doing away with racism, but we have finally gotten over our race problem with the election of President Obama. The very fact that we have a federal holiday that finally celebrates a civil rights icon is further proof that we have "come a long way" and the job is "done." Yet institutional racism still exists, institutional prejudice exists, and we have a recent example of Proposition 8 in California to remind us that oppression exists, but masks itself in the legitimacy of "family values."

His message of economic justice and ensuring that America spend her money not on militarization in the name of "humanitarian interventions" overseas in favor of housing, health care, and ending poverty once and for all is dangerous to an establishment that is trying to argue that we cannot afford to have a living wage for all, we cannot afford collective bargaining, we cannot afford NOT to cut public education, even when we are spending $1.5 million per Tomahawk missile in Libya, even when we are asking everyone to sacrifice for tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy. How dangerous is this to an establishment that cries fiscal responsibility when it comes to giving ordinary people who might need a bit of help in these tough economic times a hand up
but remains silent when it comes to war and protecting corporate interests abroad in the name of human rights?

Dr. King faced the questions that sought to limit the scope of his vision to just being concerned about civil rights, and left unspoken, African-Americans.

For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a Civil Rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed from the shackles they still wear.
 He goes on to say...
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the "brotherhood of man." This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant or all men, for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved His enemies so fully that He died for hem? What then can I say to the Viet Cong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death, or must I not share with hem my life?
At a time when it might have seemed treasonous to actively call himself a voice for the North Vietnamese civilians who were being bombed to oblivion, at a time when it might have seemed treasonous and threatening to the establishment that his voice was passionate and eloquent in calling to attention the poverty of those who were being left behind by the military-industrial complex's funneling of taxpayer dollars in Vietnam, at a time when the establishment's voices were trying to mold him into someone manageable as they always try to do, either by marginalizing their voices, silencing them through ignoring them, or framing them into a non-threatening caricature, Dr. King's voice of dissent protesting against economic injustice and a war that looked more and more unjustifiable is what we need to pay attention to, instead of the caricature that the establishment has attempted to force on us.

How do we start? For one thing, the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University has lesson plans geared towards brainstorming with students what THEY can do to make a difference in their communities. Liberation Curriculum (I love it!) focuses on students becoming active participants in making change, instead of the establishment's desire that we stay passive, patiently waiting for the day when their "benevolence" will bestow upon us equality and justice. One of the lesson plans that I hope to use someday and to modify to broaden the scope to include not just laws but rather even examples of institutional racism or sexism or whatever in their communities calls for

Strategizing for Justice
Identify an unjust law or policy in your school or community. Using the Montgomery bus boycott as a model, create a step-by-step plan to change the law or policy. Present the plan for causing systemic change to your class. You may want to use the Model for Social Change Handout as a guide.

What I love is that the PDF file has a column entitled YOUR strategy for change. How empowering must it be when students are presented with an opportunity to find their own strategies and their own answers in issues that matter to THEM.


  1. Great post! Loved it. Dr. King is my number one hero!

  2. Our state standards in CA do not focus on his message on economic justice and peace. Unfortunately, these topics are neglected in our schools as they threaten the establishment's status quo. We do not learn much about labor history in addition, an oversight I intend to fix in my classroom...