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King’s vision included economic justice

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By Rick Howell

    Hurricane Irene caused the official Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Dedication ceremony to be postponed to either September or October.

    Whenever it happens, American citizens will gather to remember the struggles and the achievements of our country’s greatest civil rights leader.
    One of the strangest things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime – and in the development of my political consciousness – is to see Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed from a hated figure of my youth to a respected national icon.
    Now, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike, agree that King’s mission was correct. Racism, institutional and otherwise, was wrong, and the victory of the civil rights movement was both inevitable and just.
    But it wasn’t always so. Growing up in Bedford County, I specifically remember that the hatred of King by white people was visceral, emotional, and loud. He wasn’t just opposed for his views on civil rights; he was vilified, called a “communist.”
    The civil rights movement was said to be – by the conservatives of that time – “communist inspired.” At least one politician who spouted that stuff is still active locally. But it was everywhere; I never knew a white person who had anything good to say about King.
    But what we forget today is that King’s fight wasn’t just racial, just about civil rights. He had a vast and comprehensive view of what justice ought to be in America, and he approached it from a moral and economic – yes, economic – perspective.
    In the last two years of his life, King moved from merely a civil rights focus to war and economic justice. He said, “Bombs that explode in Vietnam also explode at home.” He knew that the poor blacks who fought in Vietnam – supposedly for the “freedom” of the Vietnamese – had little such freedom here.
    He would not accept the idea that any person who lived in the richest country on Earth should ever be poor. A nation that preaches freedom, justice, and democracy should live up to what it says it is, and he challenged America to do that.
    King believed that we should have a guaranteed annual income in America, and that rich people and corporations should pay their fair share in taxes. He thought the country should help the victims of capitalism, a system that he knew, left alone, produced a great deal of poverty.
    So, what would he make of America today? How would he see the retail-driven economy with its low wages and its high joblessness?
    What would he think of a Republican party that seems to believe only in wealth and corporate power? What would he think of spineless Democrats, unable or unwilling to challenge the hypocrisies and the lies of conservatism?
    First, on civil rights, he’d surely be pleased that we’ve made such progress. But on economics, he’d see that we are far from the society he knew we should be. The rich are getting richer, the middle class is being stripped of any power and influence, and the poor…well, they’re still poor, aren’t they? And in greater numbers.
    Martin Luther King, Jr. was all about the dignity of human life. That dignity included a living wage for all who worked, and jobs for all who wanted to work. This was why he went to Memphis in 1968, to support the hard-working, low-paid sanitation workers, who marched with signs that said “I am a Man,” a contrast to how they were treated.
    Soon, I will take my son to see the King Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. I want him to understand what this man fought for, and I want him to know that King’s fight must continue. 

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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.