After his assassination, this second Lincoln was slowly put aside.
Some 40 years after his death North and South had reconciled, but the Jim Crow era was fully begun. Plessy vs. Ferguson, endorsing non-school schools for blacks, was by then 10 years in the past. In 1906 the first in a series of white race riots happened here in Atlanta, riots meant to cement blacks in "their place." A few years later a Georgia native became President. A violent racist, Woodrow Wilson believed "Birth of a Nation" was a documentary.
And so to Dr. King. Today is King Day. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., like Lincoln, also led two crusades. One was to give black people civil rights. The second was to give poor people dignity, and to end war.
After his assassination, this second Martin Luther King
was also pushed aside. We are now 39 years removed from his death.
Nominal rights have been granted, middle-class and upper-class blacks
live lives their grandparents couldn’t dream of.
But the rising tide
did not lift all boats.
Poor blacks are, spiritually, poorer than ever. They live in
economic as well as racial isolation. Any black person who "makes it"
will first move away, and then move out their relatives, just as
immigrants who succeed here bring their families to them.
What was Hurricane Katrina (left), in the end, but a riot against the black poor?
The underclass of New Orleans was scattered like the Israelites, treated as refugees, blamed for the problems of other cities. There
will be no place for them in the "New" New Orleans, if one ever gets
And I was there, just last month. New Orleans today is the Terri Schiavo of American
cities — uninsurable, its business core gone, no promise of new
levees, its east side a moonscape of abandoned buildings, murderers
coming now into the very center of the city to prey on those left
behind, as though an atomic bomb and not a hurricane had visited the place.
Yet the Saints win a play-off game and sports announcers confidently
claim "the city is back," then take the next plane out.
There is a war going on in this country, against the poor,
especially the black poor but against all the poor. Here in Atlanta,
our public housing has been systematically torn down, replaced with
middle-income blocks that will let in a few of the "deserving poor" —
those who jump through the most hoops — and leave the "undeserving"
out. Poor people in this country can’t get basic medical care, their
wages are (in terms of inflation) at pre-Depression levels, their
"education" consists of a series of tests meant only to make
bureaucrats look good. And about 20% of their men are in jail.
Then read the rhetoric of the right today,
concerning Dr. King’s legacy. Caring for the poor, denouncing hate is
itself described as hate. Bigotry against those born into poverty, those whose
hearts are different, or those who seek real equality — that’s the real
bigotry. Woodrow Wilson would have approved.
What is happening right now is meant to be a further sanitation of King’s Legacy.
His dear wife Coretta, who was born a Scott (as he was born a King) and
thus was a woman of relative wealth and power in her own right, has
been buried and her work on behalf of poor people, women and gays has
been forgotten. Even by her children, like her daughter Bernice (right), whose
personal crusades today are for continuing the slavery of other women and keeping gay people in civil bondage.
But here’s the real problem.
We can’t wait 50 years for a new King or a new Lincoln.
The world will be dead by then.
The greatest threat to the world today is poor people. Poor people
can’t demand clean air or clean water. These are luxuries. Poor people
won’t hesitate to burn down a forest to clear bits of land for cattle
or small farms. Poor people will accept exploitation if
it means protecting what jobs they have. Poor people can’t see the
future because they have no present.
We must reconcile ourselves to eradicating poverty. We cannot
exterminate the poor. That war will consume us as it will consume them.
Yet this is the course our nation has chosen, a fact proven by our
current policies, and our current silence in the face of American
But listen. Some do learn their history. Some demand that it accelerate.
If you’re in Congress and you know this war is going in the wrong
direction, it is no longer enough to study your options and keep your
Silence is betrayal. Speak out, and stop this
escalation now. You have the power to prohibit the president from
spending any money to escalate the war – use it.
And to all of
you here today – and the millions like us around the country who know
this escalation is wrong – your job is to reject the easy way of apathy
and choose instead the hard course of action.
betrayal. Speak out. Tell your elected leaders to block this misguided
plan that is destined to cost more lives and further damage America’s
ability to lead. And tell them also, that the reward of courage…is
Is it possible that history can be accelerated? Yes, if we learn from
it. Yes, if leaders emerge. Yes, if we’re willing to follow them.