Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King, Jr.

What a hero.

It's worth remembering on this day that King's dream is incomplete. We've come a long way, but there's still a ways to go. In an article last year, Mara Voukydis asked, WWMLKD: What Would Martin Luther King Do?

Decades ago, King spoke of millions of Americans "smoldering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society." This still rings true in 2005. In the past four years, some gains made in the nineties have been lost. In 2000, the Black unemployment rate dipped to an all-time low of 7%. Now more than one out of ten Black Americans is unemployed, as compared to roughly one out of twenty whites. The familiar call for personal responsibility loses its momentum when a person tries desperately and is unable to find work.

Income levels and poverty rates also worsened since 2000. The number of families in poverty fell rapidly during the nineties for all groups, but especially fast for Latinos and Blacks. Much of that progress has been lost in the past four years. As for earnings, the average Black income was 65% of white income in the year 2000, but 62% of white income in 2003. The first Bush administration blocked Congressional efforts to increase the minimum wage.

Some have said that it's enough that we have outlawed racial discrimination, that the ongoing problems of African Americans are their own fault, and that affirmative action (for example) is unfair discrimination which King would have opposed. However, King argued that it's not enough to end today's prejudicial treatment. We must make up for the wrongs of the past:

Whenever this issue [compensatory treatment] is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the second would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.

A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis. (Wikipedia .)

Let us also take from King's example the tremendous potential of religion. (This one's for you, Sadie Lou.) I spend most of my time criticizing it here in a time and place where religious fundamentalists seem driven by more by hatred than by love, but King's religion should be an inspiration to all religious people, and his life an inspiration to everybody, religious or not. Instead of fighting against gay rights, instead of fighting the use of condoms in Africa, instead of wailing about the so-called "War on Christmas," King fought for love and freedom:

We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule.

The spirit of Lincoln still lives; that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans, and made the captives free. In the light of this divine example, the doctrines of demagogues shiver in their chaff.

America experiences a new birth of freedom in her sons and daughters; she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief. Their loyalty is repledged; their devotion renewed to the work He left unfinished. My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom. And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon--a Negro--and yet a man!
--from The Negro and the Constitution


Foilwoman said...

The actions of religious people during the civil rights movement should be an inspiration to us all. A good book to read on a related topic (distantly related) is "Bury the Chains" about the British abolitionist movement which successfully sought abolition of slavery in the British Empire without bloodshed. Led by Quakers, for the most part.

dbackdad said...

Jim Wallis talks a lot in his book, God's Politics, about the prominent role of religion in the civil rights movement. That's where religious people have really lost their way now. They're fighting against things instead of for things.

Great post, JA. MLK's definitely one of my heroes.

Jack's Shack said...

He was a real hero.

Ben Avuyah said...

I still get chills and goose bumps when I hear, "free at last...."

Foilwoman said...

"I have a dream . . ." is the one that does it for me. I normally don't like Jesse Jackson, but his "They work every day, they catch the early bus" speech was a more recent political/religious speech that really stirred my heart. Even though, actually, I loathe Jesse Jackson.

DNA said...

Yet how long can we consider blacks to have been oppressed by other Americans? Soon the majority of Americans won't even be caucasian. And many current caucasians, likely including the Jewish readers of this blog, did not have anscestors here to own slaves, on the contrary, many were themselves persecuted in Europe and expect no preferential treatment here. In fact, many Jews were even persecuted here, being discriminated against in college admissions, etc. Many came here after WWII and succeeded on their own. If the blacks need help, then fine, I'm willing to help, even with unfair programs such as affirmative action; however, I strongly dislike the view that I owe them something. I, and the anscestors of the majority of Americans, never owned slaves. It _is_ time for them to take responsibility, and I think that MLK would agree.

P.S. I do appreciate the other viewpoint somewhat, but I write the above to hear your response.

Jewish Atheist said...


If the blacks need help, then fine, I'm willing to help, even with unfair programs such as affirmative action; however, I strongly dislike the view that I owe them something.

I agree with you. I'm arguing more that we (the country) should help than that we (you and I) owe them. My ancestors didn't have slaves, and even if they did, one couldn't blame me. Still, America had slavery, and America must do what it can to deal with the ongoing ramifications of it. Obviously, Black people need to take as much responsibility as everyone else, but there are some problems that still exist in the Black community because of slavery and discrimination.


I'm not a fan of him either, at least since his "Hymietown" remark, but the man can really speak. I remember watching him read Green Eggs and Ham on Saturday Night Live and it was hysterical. :)

asher said...

What do you make of the two recent speeches made on MLK, Jr's birthday:

1. Hillary Clinton telling a crowd that the House of Representatives of this country is run like a plantation "and you know what that means" and

2. The mayor of New Orleans says that New Orleans must be rebuilt to be a "chocolate" city, "it can be no other way", and his notion that Hurricane Katrina was God's way of punishing America's blacks for not taking care of themselves.

I know..we just had a full moon.

Jewish Atheist said...


Both of those comments are in awful taste. Clinton should know better. (I don't know anything about NO's mayor.)

Foilwoman said...

JA: Yes, I used to think of Jackson as being in the MLK tradition, but now I see him as being in the Al Sharpton tradition (not such a good one). Nonetheless, the man can speak, and sometimes, he hits it out of the park.

As for Clinton and the mayor of NO, I'm so glad I don't watch tv news and don't get to see that repeated ad infinitum. Still, the mayor of NO/Pat Robertson (god's punishing us . . .?): bunch of loons. No real intelligent response is really possible.

Anonymous said...

JA, have to question your examples. Who exactly do you think is fighting against gay rights? As far as condoms in Africa, it's not the Jews who are against it.

Dovid said...

MLK was a great man, but one religious ideal shouldn't negate another. Our positions of opposition, stem from a greater ideal. Like our opposition to abortion is because of our value for human life, etc. So i don't see where you draw the line between helpful and productive religion, and negative religion.

Anonymous said...

"Clinton should know better"

She does but she's playing to the crowd.

The problem I see with what you say about religion is that the same reasons are used to make religion a force for leftist politics. Look at the posttions of the Presbyterian Church USA, or the groups that espouse libeation theology, or the recent resolutions by the Reform movement ,for example. They're all fighting for (their ideas of ) love and freedom.

Jewish Atheist said...

Anonymous 1, I'm talking about the Christian Right.

Dovid, I understand being opposed to abortion. But so much of the Christian Right rhetoric seems based in hate rather than love, to me. They seem much more concerned with preventing gay people from having rights than with helping the poor and needy, for example.

Anonymous 2,

The problem I see with what you say about religion is that the same reasons are used to make religion a force for leftist politics. Look at the posttions of the Presbyterian Church USA, or the groups that espouse libeation theology, or the recent resolutions by the Reform movement ,for example. They're all fighting for (their ideas of ) love and freedom.

I'm not sure what you're saying. If you're saying that they use hate, too, I'll admit that there is a ton of Bush-bashing, but there's also a lot of love for the oppressed and the poor. Their primary political objectives aren't to prevent people from having rights, but to increase people's rights.

Anonymous said...

(Same anonymous who previously posted)
What I was saying was that they have a poltical agenda. Their "love for the oppressed and the poor" isn't love. In many cases the oppressed aren't really being oppressed. In other cases, relgious people are simply using the concept of oppression to further their collectivist goals. Some do-gooders are bona fide and I respect them. But many are not and we need to keep a healthy dose of skepticism about their motivations and about whether they are really doing any good.

Jewish Atheist said...


Their "love for the oppressed and the poor" isn't love.

I don't see how you could know that. Some of the people I know best are religious liberals and they do seem (to me) to be genuinely motivated by love. These are people who have chosen careers which pay much less than others their abilities would give them access to but allow them to devote their lives to helping others.

In many cases the oppressed aren't really being oppressed.

In such cases, the liberal theists would be mistaken, but I don't see how that's relevant.

In other cases, relgious people are simply using the concept of oppression to further their collectivist goals.

While I appreciate skepticism of motives in general, I'm not sure what such collectivist goals would be, nor why one would have them.

Where I think liberal theists and liberals in general (including me, of course) fail, when they do, is when they aren't sufficiently pragmatic. It seems incontrovertible to me that -- objective correctness of ideas aside -- liberals err on the side of being too compassionate while conservatives err on the side of being too callous. (For example, liberals are concerned with the rights of criminals while conservatives are concerned more with keeping them locked up or killed.)

There are of course political opportunists who manipulate liberals' good intentions to further their own goals. Obviously there are politicians who play to the liberals but only help themselves, for example. But I think the liberals themselves are generally good hearted.

Sadie Lou said...

I loathe Jesse Jackson as well. I thought he stood for something way back in highschool when I chose to do a research paper on the Rainbow Coalition but the more I read about him--the less I liked him and his whiney attitude towards EVERYTHING.

Excellent post. It goes without mentioning (but I will anyways) that Christians can speak to the world at large without being abrasive or offensive. MLK was able to address everyone where they were at--so very much unlike Mr. Pat Robertson who divides people with every word he speaks.

Foilwoman said...

Regarding the abortion debate, my biggest pet peeve with many (not all) anti-choice types is that they are clearly focussed on punishing free exercise of sexuality rather than actually saving lives (as they claims to be doing). Those who actually do focus their efforts on helping pregnant women keep their babies by actually helping those women in real and concrete ways and the actually helping the children born as a consequence of their (the anti-abortion or choice, you decide, activitists) interference have nothing but my respect.*

See for a post on this issue.

Laura said...

Boy am I a latecomer to this one. I've been busy.

Good post, and I agree with JA 100%. In regards to comments made about making up for slavery, etc. Take a look around and you'll notice that many of the common images of Black Americans come from that period and have yet to be buried in the past. Black women are seen as "built" for domestic labor, are seen as sexually promiscuous and as sex objects (they're also raped more often than white women). We also still have the pervasive images of the "Mammy". Black men are stereotyped as lazy, as dangerous to white women, and as violent brutes. These are all images from the period of slavery through the civil rights movement. There are still plenty of people in this country that view Blacks as "monkeys" or as inferior human beings.

Until these images and perceptions are erased completely, the civil rights movement is not over.

Anonymous said...

(Same anonymous who previously posted on this thread)
Laura, I'm not sure where you see all these images, but it seems you are talking about indoctrination rather than civil rights. People will think whatever they want. Trying to control their thoughts is --well, thought control.

JDHURF said...

To call affirmative action unfair is, well, unfair. The fact of the matter is that black Americans were slaves and they have indeed come along way since then but the government is still needed to help the black community. It’s like a race where one runner has a four lap head start while the other runner is held back by a bystander, then when the bystander finally lets the runner go other bystanders claim that the impeded runner should be able to catch back up by themselves “it wasn’t I that held him back” they say, “they have every opportunity they need to catch up” they say. Well no they don’t. To make such claims is either ignorance or racism, most likely ignorance people just cannot understand the real world implications of hundreds of years of slavery, racism and inequality. For shame dna, for shame.

As far as the two comments made by Clinton and then by the NO governor, I think they were both highly distasteful. The governors was the more blatantly stupid and benign comment, while Clinton’s was a comment that held at least some reserve of truth; Barak Obama (the only black congressman) has come out in support of her statements. Though I myself would have never made either comment, they both seem too distasteful for me.

Laura said...

Anon: You seem to believe that people's thoughts are independent of the environment in which they live perhaps? I do not. What we see, hear, and read impacts how we see the world, which in turn impacts how we interact with each other... it's all connected. If you look closely enough, you'll see those images.