A View from the Battlefield
By Jamala Rogers
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board
It’s that time of year where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s uplifting speech permeates the air. It’s a time when killers of the dream are allowed to pontificate their own version of “I Have a Dream.” It’s a time when the drum majors for greed, racism and injustices are paraded out to receive awards in the name and spirit of Dr. King.
I have attempted to lift up the brilliance and complexity of Dr. King’s work and his enduring analysis of this country’s three evils: racism, war and poverty. Over four decades since his death, these three evils are alive and well. Dreaming won’t rid us of them either.
Black people are still being lynched in the 21st Century. Billions of tax dollars are spent each year in military aggression. One in six Americans now lives below the poverty line. The unemployment rate for black people has been doubled that of whites since 1972 so when white unemployment dips, black folks are under water. Currently, unemployment for African-Americans is the highest in nearly 30 years. The twin towers of poverty and economic injustice are remain indomitable .
The King had many profound insights about life in the U.S. and it has taken years to uncover his many speeches and writings that expose the barriers to peace and prosperity for all American citizens.
One book that recently came to my attention is written by Michael Honey, a professor of labor studies and American history at Washington University in Tacoma. While doing research at the King Center in Atlanta some years ago, Honey discovered a folder of King’s speeches to labor unions and workers’ rights organizations. Most had never been published and so Honey put several of them together in his book, All Labor Has Dignity (King Legacy). King rightfully saw the labor movement as an indispensable ally of the civil rights movement.
I was particularly struck by a speech delivered to a group of New York Teamsters in 1967. It was given in the middle of King’s unrelenting work around workers’ issues and their connection to poverty. A few months later, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) launched the Poor People’s Campaign. It is during this period where he felt compelled to go to Memphis at a crucial time of the sanitation workers’ struggle.
Dr. King challenged the Teamsters in his most eloquent but penetrating words. He started off by acknowledging the limited accomplishments of civil rights movements on segregation:
“It will not be easy to accomplish this program because white America has had cheap victories up to this point. The limited reforms we won have been obtained at bargain rates for the power structure. There are no expenses involved, no taxes required for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities. For even the more substantial reform, such as voting rights required neither large monetary or psychological sacrifice. . . .”
What Dr. King was saying was that the privileges of white people in an inherently racist society must be scrutinized in the quest for economic equity. White people marching arm-in-arm with blacks for voting rights or to de-segregate a lunch counter was a picnic compared to what it would take to deconstruct an economic system that used race and gender to exploit workers at the bottom. King believed that labor unions had a unique role in this phase of the struggle.
We have been stuck in this phase for much too long. Dr. King understood that it was a class war long before the Occupy protests drew a line in the sand between the 99 Percenters and the contemporary robber barons who head up global finance capital. He understood the need for wealth redistribution long before the Republicans tried to make it a dirty word.
As we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday, let justice-seeking people declare that “cheap victories” of the past must be the stepping stones to real equality now. This is a fight for decent paying jobs that guarantee a deserving quality of life for all citizens. It must be directly connected to the struggle of whites to make the necessary “monetary” and” psychological” sacrifices. Full civil and human rights will not be bought at “bargain rates.”
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member, Jamala Rogers, is the leader of the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis and the Black Radical Congress National Organizer. Additionally, she is an Alston-Bannerman Fellow. She is the author of The Best of the Way I See It – A Chronicle of Struggle. Click here to contact Ms. Rogers.