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Dr. King shows us the way to end poverty in America

January 21, 2009

Speech given by Dr. Scott Myers-Lipton, associate professor, San José State University, at the 29th Annual Martin Luther King Luncheon of Santa Clara County, Jan. 19, 2009

Whatever faith Black New Orleanians may have had in their government was betrayed and destroyed after Katrina.
Whatever faith Black New Orleanians may have had in their government was betrayed and destroyed after Katrina.
We gather today to honor the life, the vision and the sacrifice of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a momentous time in American history. Tomorrow, a man, an African American man, will be sworn into office as president of the United States.

We are well aware of the sacrifices people have paid for this moment to come to fruition. Foremost in our minds today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But as we all know, there were hundreds and thousands of others who have worked to see such a day.

Famous people, such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and W.E.B. DuBois have worked for such a day, and not so famous people, like the 72-year-old Sister Pollard, who was just one of the thousands of people who stayed off the buses during the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. Sister Pollard gave us that beautiful comment that “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”

And we could go on and on about the everyday people, including those in this very room, who have struggled and sacrificed for such a day as tomorrow. And we should celebrate, as I know most of us will be doing tomorrow, as we watch on TV the inauguration of President Barack Obama (applause). For his election is an historic milestone on our country’s long path towards equality and a very large step on the pathway to the Promised Land.

So with tomorrow, a new chapter in American history will begin. But as well all know, President Obama and our nation confront great challenges: two wars, the bank and credit crisis, the sharp increase of unemployment over the past four months and the foreclosure crisis, which have all but wiped out the housing gains made by African Americans over the past several decades.

And President Obama will face another issue, and that issue is what Dr. King called “the curious formula.” Dr. King said that this formula dates back to the writing of the U.S. Constitution, where a Black person was considered 60 percent of a human being when determining taxation and representation.

Dr. King was fond of saying that because of racism, there was another “curious formula” that existed that declared Blacks 50 percent of a person. Of the good things in life, Blacks had approximately half those of Whites. Of the bad things, Blacks had twice those of Whites.

And in spite of all the positive developments that have occurred since the Civil Rights Movement, this “curious formula” still exists today. Some examples will illustrate the point:
• In 1970, 10 percent of White Americans lived in poverty, compared to 30 percent of African Americans. Today, 8 percent of White Americans are in poverty, compared to 24 percent of Black Americans.
• In 1968, the unemployment rate was 5 percent for White Americans and 10 percent for Blacks. Today, White unemployment is 6 percent, while Black unemployment is 11 percent.
• Today, in Santa Clara County, the Infant Mortality Rate, a statistic that looks at the number of children who die before their first birthday and is widely accepted as an accurate indicator of general health, is 3.5 percent for Whites and 10.4 percent for Blacks.
• And just yesterday, I read in the San Jose Mercury that Blacks make less than 50 percent of Whites in Santa Clara County.

And this “curious formula” still applies to all sorts of other areas as well: foreclosure rates, loan application denial rates, prison population, who fights and dies in war, and who gets pulled off a BART train.

While this is the disheartening news, the good news is that Dr. King made some very specific policy suggestions on how to change this unjust and racist formula, which are still relevant for us today as we enter the Obama era. A key component of changing this unjust formula was to end poverty in America. To understand Dr. King’s call to end poverty, we must do a bit of history and travel back to 1966.

This “curious formula” (Black-White disparity) still applies to foreclosure rates, loan application denial rates, prison population, who fights and dies in war, and who gets pulled off a BART train.

At that time – after 11 years of struggle since the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 – Dr. King had concluded that Black equality with Whites could not be achieved without fundamental changes to American society. King called the changes up to 1966 “surface changes” and he called on the movement to undergo a major transformation, from civil rights to human rights.

King felt that the civil rights movement had done little to address the poverty of Black Americans and the inequality that existed between Black and White. King argued that it did little good to sit down at a restaurant, if people could not afford the meal.

To solve this problem, King made three specific proposals:

  1. a public works New Deal-like program assuring full employment
  2. a guaranteed income at middle class income levels
  3. 5 million new low income housing units built in 10 years

Under Dr. King’s proposal of public works and a guaranteed income, Black Americans, as well as Whites and other people of color who lived in poverty, would be lifted into the middle class and would be able to provide for themselves adequate housing, food, clothing and health care.

Dr. King recognized this proposal would cost the U.S. money. But as King declared: “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote. But now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power. …

“And if our nation can spend $35 billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam and $20 billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.”

His goal of ending poverty through public works and a guaranteed income is what Dr. King dedicated most of his time to in 1966-68. But with the assassination of Dr. King, and then of Robert Kennedy, the issue of poverty faded into the background of mainstream debate.

The post-Katrina remains of this small house at 5000 Cartier Ave., New Orleans, reveal it was home to a poor but proud Black family. Most of the quarter million displaced have not been able to return and rebuild. – Photo: Robert Polidori
The post-Katrina remains of this small house at 5000 Cartier Ave., New Orleans, reveal it was home to a poor but proud Black family. Most of the quarter million displaced have not been able to return and rebuild. – Photo: Robert Polidori
However, America was shocked out of its slumber in late August and early September of 2005, when the issue of poverty, as well as race, gripped the nation and the world as we watched on TV our fellow brothers and sisters of the Gulf Coast, and specifically in New Orleans, suffer so greatly as they waited for assistance at the Superdome and at the Convention Center and on rooftops for five days without adequate food or water.

Interestingly, the media had become so unaccustomed to covering our poverty crisis, they didn’t even have the language to describe the social suffering they were seeing. What word the media did come up with was “refugee,” as if somehow the winds of Katrina blew away the citizenship of Gulf Coast residents.

As a result of Hurricane Katrina, over 1,830 died, 250,000 houses were destroyed, 500,000 people were displaced. The damage hit the Black community of New Orleans hard, but it extended over 90,000 square miles and included the Vietnamese American communities in New Orleans East and Biloxi, Native American communities in Louisiana and poor White communities all along the Gulf.

Now, I would argue that Katrina was a defining moment in U.S. history. It exposed to nation and world a secret – mostly hidden from mainstream society, not from Dr. King’s vision but from mainstream society – that the U.S. has a high rate of poverty. In fact, the USA is the poverty leader in the industrialized world. Today, 37 million people live in poverty – 13 percent of the total population and 18 percent of kids.

So what does Hurricane Katrina have to do with Dr. King’s vision? For me, the basic issues of what Dr. King fought for in the last two years of his life are all evident in what happened and continues to happen in the Gulf Coast.

The issues of:
• Human rights: specifically, the lack of housing, which makes it very difficult for some to return
• Poverty and economic justice: Louisiana and Mississippi are the poorest two states in the nation; prior to the storm, 23 percent of New Orleans residents lived in poverty
• Racial injustice: Whether it be the sheriffs of Gretna, who blocked a bridge so that hundreds of mostly African Americans could not leave New Orleans and enter into the next parish – and who in fact shot over their heads – or whether the media images that highlighted White people “finding food” while Black people obtained their food through “looting,” racial injustice was apparent.

The USA is the poverty leader in the industrialized world. Today, 37 million people live in poverty – 13 percent of the total population and 18 percent of kids.

Incredibly, almost three and a half years later, the Gulf Coast residents and displaced continue to suffer, especially the kids, the elderly, the poor and the sick. Much of the basic infrastructure in working class and poor neighborhoods – schools, hospitals, parks, housing, fire stations, the water system – are still badly damaged.

So Dr. King would have understood the racial and social class issues raised by Hurricane Katrina. And I believe one of his major policy proposals, that of public works, provides a solution for many of the issues that the Gulf Coast faces.

The title of today’s event is “Embracing the Spirit of Change.” This spirit of change animated a group of 40 San Jose State University students and myself over two years ago. A group of my students had called for a “sleep out” to dramatize the fact that Santa Clara County had recently become the “homeless capital” of Northern California, with over 7,000 homeless on any given night.

They started with a sleep out held at the campus statues of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Olympic medalists who raised a Black Power salute in Mexico City. We watched Spike Lee’s film, “When the Levees Broke.” And, coincidentally, in my morning class, we talked about public works – how, in November of 1933, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) hired 800,000 in less than two weeks, reaching its peak employment of 4.3 million in mid-January 1934. During that cruel winter, they built and repaired over 40,000 schools and 255,000 miles of roads and streets; built 469 airports and improved 529 others; laid 12 million miles of sewer pipe; employed 50,000 teachers so that many rural schools could remain open; and built 3,500 playgrounds and athletic fields.

To give you a sense of what we started almost two and a half years ago, let’s watch:

The Gulf Coast Civic Works Project has sponsored two other large student trips to the Gulf, the most recent in November 2008, when we had 80 students from 27 colleges come to a conference entitled “Rebuild the Gulf Coast, Rebuild America,” co-hosted by Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

After a year of organizing, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, HR 4048, was introduced into Congress by our Rep. Zoe Lofgren. It is about to be reintroduced into the House and hopefully into the Senate.

The Gulf Coast Civic Works Act funds “green” resident-led recovery projects, building on the success of community organizations in Gulf Coast recovery to help meet the overwhelming unmet needs of the individuals, families and communities devastated by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike.

The program would be a pilot project administered by the Office of Gulf Coast Recovery and Rebuilding using a hybrid model to partner directly with communities in planning, overseeing and administering recovery projects to assist the survivors of these disasters, provide communities with tools to build resilience against the impact of future disasters and revitalize the region economically.

The Gulf Coast Civic Works Act to fund “green” resident-led recovery projects is inspired by Dr. King’s proposal for ending poverty: a public works New Deal-like program assuring full employment.

The bill would create a minimum of 100,000 prevailing wage jobs and training opportunities for local and displaced workers on projects reinvesting in infrastructure and restoring the coastal environment, utilizing emerging green building techniques and technologies. It is our hope that HR 4048, which is inspired by Dr. King, will inspire a national Civic Works project.

New Orleans residents, partnering with experts in sustainable green construction, have begun rebuilding wherever they could. – Photo: Greenpeace
New Orleans residents, partnering with experts in sustainable green construction, have begun rebuilding wherever they could. – Photo: Greenpeace
I would like to conclude with a recognition of the fact that this year is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s visit to India to learn first-hand from the co-workers of Mohandas Gandhi about non-violence.

I would encourage you to look at the photos of Martin and Coretta Scott King in India that are on display. Of Gandhi, King would say that “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method … Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationship. The “turn the other cheek” philosophy and the “love your enemies” philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals.

“When racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was. Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.”

King’s passion for non-violence would strengthen because of his trip to India. King was most impressed with how little animosity there was between Indians and the British. This gave King confidence that after a non-violent struggle in the U.S., the oppressed and the oppressor would be able to sit down at the table of brother and sisterhood.

Even during the difficult years of 1966-68, when large-scale riots encompassed many America cities and the belief in non-violence as a strategy for social change was waning, King held fast to non-violence, stating, “If I’m the last, lone voice calling for nonviolence, that I will do.”

His belief in non-violence extended beyond how he conducted his campaigns, but also into how nations should treat one another. He bravely opposed the Viet Nam War, even though many in the movement felt like he should stick to civil rights.

He spoke out against how much the U.S. spends on the military, saying, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”

And he called on today’s Western powers, who were yesterday’s colonial masters, not to continue using racism, economic exploitation and military might, which King saw as all tied together, but rather to build an “international order” based on respect, fairness and peace.

For as King said: “We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together – Black and White, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”

Our nation, which is involved in two wars and currently spends over $700 billion a year for the military, which is 48 percent of the total military spending in the world, would be wise to listen to Dr. King’s call for an end to militarism.

So as Dr. King would say, where do we go from here: chaos or community? As a follower of Martin King, I would say:
• End poverty in America by creating a civic works project for the Gulf Coast and nation that creates full employment, and by implementing a guaranteed income, perhaps through an extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit.
• Build decent housing for our low and moderate income residents.
• And lastly, create an international order based on non-violence, fair trade and human rights.

As we celebrate today what would have been Dr. King’s 80th birthday, and President Obama’s inauguration tomorrow, let us rededicate ourselves to the ideas and ideals of our great American hero, our second founding father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Scott Myers-Lipton has been a sociology professor at San José State University since 1999. He can be reached at smlipton@sjsu.edu.

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