DMI Blog

James Carmichael

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Thanks for keeping it real.

Thanks to everyone who turned out for the "Realizing the Dream" MLK Commemoration yesterday at The Riverside Church; as you may have readop-ed decrying the generalized, media-friendly image of Dr. King that gets touted on this day- an image that is notable particularly because of its almost total whitewash of his campaign for universal economic equity and because it overlooks the essential fact that, as much as be brought people together with astonishing skill, Dr. King's career was one of staking out fiercely controversial positions, in the face of enormous opposition, and making specific demands of that opposition.

So I won't yap again about the lack of specificity of some of the rhetoric we'll undoubtedly hear today, or about the labored analogies that may be drawn ("plantation," anyone?). But I thought it'd be worthwhile relaying, in this very appropriate forum, some of the most trenchant remarks that were made yesterday as a counterweight to the palliative folderol that will inevitably come in from other quarters.

John Edwards' speech has been widely covered already, but it bears repeating. He took advantage of the historic site- at which Dr. King gave "Beyond Vietnam," his famous break with LBJ on the Vietnam War, in 1967- to articulate a forceful and unambiguous opposition to the war in Iraq. What was refreshing about the Senator's remarks was that he refused to straddle any fences- on an issue about which we're used to equivocation, his simple summary was: "The best way to make clear that we are leaving Iraq, is to actually start leaving Iraq.” I know that this isn't a forum for foreign policy debate, and I recognize that this is a debatable point- but on a holiday where you're used to generalities, it was heartening to see a public figure take a real stand. And, as Dr. King did in his historic speech, this anti-war sentiment was wrapped into specific domestic policy issues. He called for a raise in the minimum wage. He reminded the audience of the importance of unions (ironically, just as I was guiding the imposing Roger Toussaint to a seat), and he linked all this to a familiar theme from his 2004 primary- the growing inequity in the distribution of wealth, income, and opportunity in America.

Senator Edwards wasn't the only person who came with real demands, however. Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children's Defense Fund, came bearing a message (and materials, which she was quick to put right in the hands of Senator Schumer) of a very specific campaign: a call for Congress to pass a bill universalizing healthcare for children. Ms. Edelman, by doing her work, has long refused to allow Dr. King's legacy to wither into Hallmark phrase-making, and this proposed legislation- and her presence in New York to tell over 2,000 people about it and get petitions signed- seemed to be exactly what the Holiday should be about. For more details click here, and to sign the petition please visit the CDF site.

Senator Schumer made two specific promises; well, one specific promise and one good one. The specific promise (and I wanted to document this) was to spend the balance of his session pushing the CDF's universal child coverage bill. The second promise- not one solvable by a single piece of legislation, admittedly- was to address the "unacceptable" number of unemployed young men of color throughout New York state and the country. It feels right to use this holiday to inspire legislative promises from sitting Senior Senators, and right also to document those promises and hold them accountable for the action they've promised.

I don't mean to short-change any of the other remarkable participants in the program (Martin Luther King, III, arrived with a video documenting the many faces of poverty throughout America, and Congressman Weiner told a wonderful story about Rep. John Lewis, which I'd love to repeat but won't for fear of stealing either Congressman's thunder), but I think I'm going to leave this summary there before it, too, becomes general.

Happy King Day, everyone. Thanks for reading a blog that is concerned with the nuts and bolts that a lot of the rhetoricians out there today seem almost explicitly trying to obscure with Dr. King's sanitized memory. It was nice, yesterday, being part of a crowd and addressed by leaders whose main focus was on the very ungeneral details that are what ultimately constitute progress.

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Posted at 10:42 AM, Jan 15, 2007 in Civil Rights | Drum Major Institute | Labor | Progressive Agenda | Progressives | Racial Justice
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