Martin Luther King Day - Expressing Reverence Through Action
Over the objections of Vice President Cheney and Senator Trent Lott, Americans will celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday. King will be honored for many things, as "prime mover of the Montgomery bus boycott, keynote speaker at the March on Washington, [and America's] youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate." But it is important to recognize all the progressive challenges King laid out for America. Providing an inspiring example of how faith can be translated into the public realm, Dr. King used his pulpit to confront – besides racial inequality – poverty, war, civil liberties, hunger and global justice, among other things. "God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here," King said, "and his children who can't eat three square meals a day…This is what we have to do." King challenged Americans to surmount the "apathy of conformist thought," and stand up for a series of specific and connected progressive causes.
ECONOMIC JUSTICE: In the months immediately preceding his death on April 4, 1968, King turned his attention almost exclusively to the problem of poverty. He called for a guaranteed family income, threatened national boycotts, and spoke of disrupting entire cities by nonviolent "camp-ins." King was interested in more than charity; he wanted to effect structural changes that would guarantee a better chance for America's poor. "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar," he said, "it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." Thirty-seven years after King's death, the "edifice" still needs work. In the last four years, our supposedly "compassionate" president has rammed through three separate tax cuts for the wealthy, greatly increasing the burden on low- and middle-income Americans. The result? Under President Bush, poverty rates have risen for three straight years and the number of people without health insurance has grown to 45 million.
A CARING COMMUNITY: King worked to create an America where inequality – whether racial or economic – was seen as a moral issue. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," King said. "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." The Bush administration's position? Portray the poor as mentally unsound: "I do not believe being poor is a condition," said Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson, "it is a state of mind. Perhaps it is with this theory in mind that President Bush has failed to support programs benefiting America's least fortunate, like Section 8 housing and Medicaid. In addition, his administration has undermined programs designed to improve economic development in low-income areas, like the Community Reinvestment Act, and today announced it would "drastically shrink" the Department of Housing's $8 billion community branch.
GLOBAL JUSTICE: King was outspoken on the issue of global justice. He was worried about those with great wealth but little conscience, who invested huge sums of money in the world's poor nations "only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries." It's good thing King didn't get a look at Halliburton, the vice president's former company, now being investigated for bribing, overcharging and defrauding foreign governments from which it has hauled in huge profits. Today, the U.S. has made it easier for multinational companies to profit with "no concern for the social betterment" of their own country either, reducing corporate taxes and refusing to close the so-called "Bermuda loophole" that allows companies to move their offices offshore to avoid U.S. taxes.
FOREIGN POLICY: King vehemently opposed the Vietnam War, not just because he was against violence, but because he saw how the war could undermine America's credibility abroad. King could have been speaking of the quandary in Iraq when he warned, "The judgment of God is upon us today...We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world." Polls show that since the Iraq invasion, America's reputation has plummeted worldwide. According to the report by the Defense Science Board published in November, the Bush administration's disdain for international bodies and treaties, its unilateralism and failure to communicate with other nations, has left America, precisely as King predicted it would, "morally and politically isolated in the world."