Not Fit For a King | Revelations | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Not Fit For a King

As MLK Day approaches this month, his challenge to us remains unmet

Months before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. embarked upon his most evolved political movement: the Poor Peoples' Campaign. King wanted to assert not just civil rights but human rights, especially at a time when America was spending millions on the Vietnam War and not even $60 per person living in poverty here in America. He wanted the Poor People's Campaign to be a multi-racial, unifying force that would culminate in a demonstration even larger than the 1963 march on Washington, D.C.

But King's speech decrying the Vietnam War, made in New York City on April 4, 1967, was widely criticized. Time magazine described it as "demagogic slander that sounded like a script from Radio Hanoi." The Washington Post chided, "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country and his people." Contributions to his Southern Christian Leadership conference decreased. Had King, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, done something wrong in denouncing war?

We should remember that we hear snippets from the "I Have a Dream" speech so often today because it sanitizes the challenge he posed to us. If King were alive today, he would be 78 years old, and that wouldn't be too shabby. But I would be too embarrassed to tell him that Pittsburgh was voted the "Most Livable City," because I'm sure he would ask how we define "living."

In his time, he heard the "cries of disappointment" from black youths, in particular, who were raging in riots, exasperated by a non-violent struggle that had done little to enhance their quality of life.

Unlike leaders of today, King refused to vilify angry, black youths. He pointed to the origin of their hatred as "the language of the unheard" -- those ignored by the silence of white liberals, the cowardice of other black leaders and the continued impoverishment of persons of all ethnicities.

He understood the seemingly inevitable switch made by his former protégé, Stokely Carmichael, who moved from a leadership role in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. King understood the cry for "Black Power," even if he didn't agree with all of its tenets. The quest to desegregate a lunch counter was always "bigger than a hamburger," but challenging himself and the nation, he stated, "It is much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to eradicate a slum. It is much easier to guarantee the right to vote than to create jobs or guarantee an annual income. These things cannot be done without a radical redistribution of political and economic power."

King criticized the continuing de facto economic segregation and inherent inequality, the extreme disparities in the educational system. He railed against poor housing and unemployment and underemployment. But today, there is no King to shield us from the callous attacks that insist that poor people have cultivated a "culture of poverty" and that, indeed, it is their very culture that keeps them poor.

Scholar Cornel West calls this era "the ice age" because "it is the age of indifference ... to peoples' suffering." This is how and why we hear people talking about giving poor people "handouts" while they enrich themselves on corporate welfare. And only this indifference can explain the extreme cruelty exhibited in the so-called recovery of New Orleans, and everywhere Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Bush struck the Gulf Coast.

It's insane that public housing is being demolished in New Orleans, and without any guaranteed replacement for each unit destroyed. The HUD vouchers clearly don't account for the fact that New Orleans is home to some of the poorest in our nation. Even with a new job, tenants cannot afford the first and last month's rent, or the utility bills that arrive with their new digs. And I am still amazed at how many people are surprised that most able-bodied persons in public housing actually work for a living -- even if it's an "under the table" job like domestic cleaning, hair care, child care, etc.

As we approach another day fit for a King, let us not fall under the sway of the mainstream media that seeks to weaken the strength of his spirituality, sanitize the fierceness of his analysis and mitigate the force of his pulpit.


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