From email@example.com Sat Jan 22 11:34:14 2000
If only we would heed King's message
By Mark Weisbrot, The Boston Globe, 17 January 2000
If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would surely marvel at how far this country had drifted over the last three decades, that America could gaze upon the vistas of a new millennium with no vision of ending poverty in the world's richest nation.
How could it be that a nation at peace and with the Cold War 10 years behind it still has no hope for America's poor? With federal budget surpluses piling up as far as the eye can see, could it really be that Congress has committed itself to cutting funds for nutrition, housing, and education for the poor while increasing military spending and squandering tens of billions of dollars on weapons systems designed to fight an enemy that no longer exists?
Worse yet, our largest and most successful antipoverty program - Social Security - has come under attack for no other reason than the greed of Wall Street financiers looking to expand their operations into the public sector.
As for the poor, they are expected to live through these improvements vicariously through others' joyful accumulations in the soaring stock market. It goes almost unnoticed that the majority of Americans still have literally and absolutely no stake in these swelling asset values.
We are told that we should all be grateful for the long cyclical upswing that has brought unemployment down to 4 percent. But Rev. King, too, experienced a similar economic expansion with even lower unemployment.
And in sharp contrast to the last quarter century, during which most wage earners have not shared in the fruits of economic growth, he lived through a time in which these gains actually did trickle down.
But rather than simply celebrating the advances of economic growth and technology (yes, there were rapid and futurologist-inspiring technological changes in the pre-Internet era), King demanded "the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty." He called for the government to guarantee employment and income well beyond the poverty level.
Was King politically naive? Hardly. He was looking at the nation from the point of view of its potential, and his proposals to eliminate poverty were well within our economic means.
This is even more true today, as our income per person is more than one and a half times greater.
King's vision of social and economic justice did not stop at the water's edge. He called upon Americans to "help their nation repent of her modern economic imperialism."
This economic imperialism is even more pervasive now, with Washington controlling the destiny of most of the world's poor through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. How King would have shamed them for bleeding Africa as they do today, exacting debt payments from the world's poorest countries that are 10 times as much relative to income than was considered conscionable to take from Germany after World War II.
In the last years of his life Martin Luther King spoke out with increasing urgency against the Vietnam War, calling on young men to resist the draft. He recounted the history of what he saw as a colonial war, trying to imagine how the Vietnamese people must have seen their "strange liberators."
"They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops ... So far we have killed a million of them, mostly children ... What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?"
In one of his most powerful speeches, he added: "The politicians won't tell you this; the press won't tell you this, but," he roared, "God told me to tell you the truth!"
And so he did, in oratory filled with passion and thunderous eloquence. By speaking truth to power, at the same time that he led a movement for racial and economic justice, he became the conscience of the world's most powerful nation.
So let us honor King today as he deserves to be honored by telling the truths that those who sit in the corridors of power do not want to hear, in the hope that America may one day be able to find its conscience again.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and co-author of Social Security: The Phony Crisis.