Celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King days before Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the Unites States could not seem more incongruous, nor be more timely. And needed.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he had begun to turn his attention away from the civil rights movement to what he considered to be an even more compelling problem: economic injustice.
“For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
He had discovered that the major divisive force in America was not color, but class. The rich and powerful, whether black or white, shared the same interest in keeping the races segregated, exploiting the poor and powerless, and maintaining the status quo.
He believed the unequal distribution of wealth was tearing America apart and threatening to make it a two-class society. He wanted to help build the kind of America that would not tolerate poverty within its borders, that would not allow one class to exploit another, that would not allow the powerful to abuse the powerless.
He called for “a revolution in values” that placed “democratic principles and justice above privilege.” Fighting for this change would not be easy. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
“We will be greatly misled if we feel that the problem will work itself out. Structures of evil do not crumble by passive waiting,” he warned. “The battering rams of justice” are needed.
Shortly before his death he began organizing for another march on Washington, this time for economic equality. He fought for an “economic bill of rights” that guaranteed full employment and a livable wage, affordable housing and a “massive public works programs (to build) decent housing, schools, hospitals, mass transit, parks and recreation centers.”
“Freed from the smothering prison of poverty, people could chart their own path and fully realize their human potential.”
At King’s death, nearly 50 years ago, the minimum wage in today’s dollars would be $9.54. Now it is only $7.25. That’s a loss of nearly three dollars per hour for today’s workers.
The gap between the rich and the poor is far greater now than it was then. The two-class society King feared and warned us against is already here. And people in the mostly white rust belt who had been suffering steep economic decline because of jobs being shipped overseas, decided they had had enough. Decided that career politicians had failed them. Decided that what they needed was a “strong man” to save them.
Why do the hard work of organizing, of mobilizing workers to strike and march, of flooding into the offices of their congress to demand change, of creating white papers on policy-change and registering voters? Why do that when they had a demagogue who promised, “I will fix it, I will bring jobs back, I alone will do this.”
They trusted him to do hard work for them. A man who said the minimum wage was already too high. Who did not support tuition-free colleges. Who’s idea of stirring the economy was to give even more tax cuts to the wealthiest one percent. And whose “jobs bill” appears to be giving even more subsidies (corporate welfare) to big business to “fix” our broken infrastructure. It’s just another form of “trickle-down,” voodoo economics.
The few jobs Trump has saved so far by giving kickbacks to corporations to keep their factories in the US is a small pittance in comparison to the number of jobs President Obama saved in his stimulus packet and in the auto industry bail-out at the beginning of his term.
But so far these Trump supporters seem pleased. And well they should. What they want is THEIR jobs back. And they believe that Trump will keep trying to do that.
Unfortunately, Trump isn’t interested in economic equality across the board. He isn’t interested in tearing apart the political policies and economic structures that create and sustain a two-class society, that allows the rich to grow richer and the poor poorer as one class exploits another. Economic justice isn’t on his radar or even part of his vocabulary.
And for many Trump supporters that’s just fine.
But the rest of us, hopefully we are waking up. A divided America cannot stand. Economic just across the board is sorely needed, in all corners of our nation. In the rural outback and inner cities, the factories and fast food kitchens. It’s needed for home care workers and preschool teachers, for farm workers and grocery clerks, for all who work full-time jobs for half-time wages, for all who see good jobs disappear without the training programs to support those who lose them.
What we need, as King said, is “a revolution in values” that places “democratic principles and justice above privilege.”
We need an economic system based on love. That’s what transforms the heart and mind and motivates real lasting change.
King said: “Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against justice . . . It is the collusion of immoral power with powerless immorality that constitutes the major crisis of our times.”
That kind of love and economic equality lifts all boats, for, as King said, we are all “interrelated.”
“The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich. The betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one affects all indirectly.”
This is Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy to us, and his challenge: To end poverty and economic injustice by wedding power with love.
“In the final analysis, love is not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual.
When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems.
Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”
In the age of Trump, this kind of love is needed more than ever.