It was my great honor to participate yesterday in the profound and important MLK commemoration: “Hope in an Age of Crisis: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Radical Vision for Economic Equality.” On a cold Sunday afternoon, an SRO crowd of 2,000 participants streamed into St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side to reaffirm King’s unfinished work: the dream of economic equality for all Americans.
While few of us would deny the importance of devoting a National Holiday to the life and work of Dr. King, I believe this day too often sanitizes his legacy into meaninglessness. Even worse is the way corporate America has co-opted his name for its own profit and gain. (This morning, I opened the morning paper and was greeted by ads that invoked King to sell everything from cars to Macy’s merchandise.)
It’s worse than ironic, when you consider how often King railed against corporate greed in this country – particularly toward the end of his life. Here’s but one example – a pointed MLK quote that was read aloud at yesterday’s gathering:
You can’t talk about solving the problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying proﬁt must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difﬁcult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.
Our keynote speaker, Reverend Dwight Gardner, of Trinity Baptist Church in Gary Indiana, put it very, very well:
Today in this celebration we will not lift up the toothless, scrubbed and anesthetized Dr. King as created by the mainstream media and ruling elite but we will uncover the real Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his radical vision for economic equality.
In 1963 during the March on Washington, Dr. King gave an address that included a short section about a dream, but in the same speech he also declared that America had written the Negro a bad check that had come back stamped insufficient funds. To paint him with only the hope that we could all just get along does his legacy a disservice and confuses Dr. King with Rodney King.
And so our event, organized by the People’s Lobby and IIRON, brought together a wide range of citizens to reclaim King’s radical and unfinished legacy of economic equality. And more: to commit to creating a new movement to make it so.
Speaker after speaker spotlighted local Chicago and Illinois legislation that addressed issues ranging from corporate financial accountability, a living wage, public sector jobs, the prison industrial complex and environmental protection. One by one we invited elected officials to the stage and asked them tell us if they would support these legislative initiatives. Then we ended with a pledge to continue organizing to make this dream a reality.
One of our speakers, George Goehl, Executive Director of National People’s Action, correctly pointed out that the unprecedented inequities currently facing our nation are the product of a “masterful forty year plan hatched by CEOs and right wing politicians who were clear that they had to aggregate power to expand profit.” Goehl noted that those of us who believe in a more equitable system will now have to develop our own long term plan for the “New Economy” with the following core goals:
– Everyday People Controlling the Economy
– An End to Structural Racism
– Corporations Serving the Common Good
– True Democracy – People in, Money Out
– Ecological Sustainability
The power of these kinds of public meetings resides in their modeling of a system that is generated by people power. Unlike most political events, in which elected leaders or candidates drive the agenda, this gathering was driven forward by the people themselves. The politicians who participated were not allowed to give stump speeches but were rather asked to say aloud to the community whether or not they intended to support these legislative efforts. As King himself taught us, our elected leaders are not change agents – it is rather the popular movements that lay their demands at their door.
I encourage you, this MLK Day, to resist the corporate co-opting of King’s name – and to support efforts in your community to create true economic justice to our nation. Click here to learn about organizing initiatives near you.