For the next 24 hours the US Congress is taking a brief respite from its busy efforts to slash unemployment benefits, Food Stamps, real wages, and corporate taxes, to “honor the memory” of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
To those of you who are too young to remember him, Dr. King was what used to be called a “civil rights leader.”
This means that he organized and led daring mass campaigns for racial and social equality, social justice, and peace, and against union busting, unjust, costly wars, gun violence, domestic spying, and restrictions on immigrants, often at great personal risk to himself. Believe it or not, that sort of thing actually used to happen in the USA — all the time!
Of course, Dr. King was tragically gunned down by right-wing extremists in April 1968. But that was decades ago. Some say that our country has come a long way since then.
After all, we now have a black President, a black Attorney General, our second black national security advisor, and a black First Lady who just celebrated her 50th birthday at Oprah’s 12-room mansion in Hawaii.
Still, if MLK were around today, I think he’d say that our real “civil rights” struggle – indeed, our “human rights” struggle — is just beginning:
Over 15 percent (50 million) of all Americans, and 22 percent (16 million) of American children under the age of 18 are now living in poverty with incomes at or below $23,492 per year for a family of four. This is a 50 year high, well above the 12.8 percent that prevailed in 1968. Twenty million of our fellow citizens are living at or below the half-poverty income line of $11,746 per year for a family of four. This is almost as many people as the entire poor population back in 1968. In 22 states the poverty rate is even higher, with “Mike” (aka Martin Luther) King’s home state of Georgia now featuring an 18.1 percent rate, and Mississippi topping the list at 22 percent.
English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. Español: Dr. Martin Luther King dando su discurso “Yo tengo un sueño” durante la Marcha sobre Washington por el trabajo y la libertad en Washington, D.C., 28 de agosto de 1963. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)the 12.8 percent that prevailed in 1968.
The net worth of the top 67 richest Americans, at $1.2 trillion as of January 2014, now exceeds that of all 45 million African-Americans.3 4 5 This is not just because these 67 people are extraordinarily gifted, but because the US economy has indeed become an inequality generator on steroids.
Despite the fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are far from over, we now have a pretty good idea of their total cost: at least $5 trillion, 1 in present value terms.
That would have been enough to give every poor kid in America a $300,000 nest egg for education, and end poverty forever. Of course dedicating even part of it to that would have also offended entrenched interests.
Congress has recently found time to “fast track” trade agreements and corporate tax breaks. But somehow it has not quite found time for basic legislation that is vital to poor people — like immigration reform, raising the real minimum wage above its current $1952 level, and finding the paltry $6 billion needed to restore long-term unemployment benefits.
Compared with the 1960s, we’re missing not only skilled political leadership inside the Beltway, but also a mobilized citizenry outside it.
Just as the number of racial hate groups and the practice of racial profiling by police departments has soared recently, government spying on American citizens has now become even more pervasive and sophisticated than it ever was back in the days of MLK, Watergate, and COINTELPRO. Indeed, if MLK were alive, he’d probably be the first prominent black activist to be spied on by a black Attorney General.
In any case, clearly there is a great deal of vital “civil rights” and human rights work left to do. So if there are any potential young activists out there listening, please consider this a job posting. The struggle continues, holidays or not.
James Henry writes on tax justice issues, his work has appeared in the Guardian, BBC and elsewhere.