Today’s Visionary, Not Yesterday’s Celebrity: Martin Luther King Jr’s Words with Contemporary Images
January 18, 2011, 3:00am

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Today’s Visionary, Not Yesterday’s Celebrity: Martin Luther King Jr’s Words with Contemporary Images

By Richard Eskow
An Economy for All

A lot of people in the media are so afraid of offending anyone with controversial truths that they can’t even tell the truth about the man whose holiday we’re celebrating this weekend. Their coverage could give you the impression that the purpose of Martin Luther King, Jr’s life was simply to make everybody in this country feel good about themselves—so good, in fact, that we deserve a day off just for having the wisdom to be born American.

You might be forgiven for thinking that everybody liked and admired Dr. King while he was alive – except maybe for a few angry old white people down South, who later realized the errors of their ways and were very sorry. The media have been so reluctant to convey Dr. King’s true message that Glenn Beck can claim to have inherited his mantle and millions of people believe him. They’re so afraid of telling his truth that a Pentagon official can claim that the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the spiritual heir to Gandhi’s mantle of nonviolence, would have supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this fame-addicted age, this activist and challenger of comfortable ideals has been presented as just another celebrity. And these days “celebrity” is another word for “commodity.” Dr. King: Didn’t they use his picture for one of those Apple ads? Or was it Nike? Didn’t he have his picture taken with movie stars and singers? Future generations may come to believe he was famous just for being famous – you know, like Heidi Montag.

This weekend Dr. King’s name will be spoken by politicians and business leaders who would probably despise what he would have had to say about 21st Century America. They’ll try to appropriate his name and memory to ensure their own well-being. They hope to domesticate his moral challenge in order to protect their own ambition.

Fortunately, Martin Luther King left his words behind. In his honor, here are ten quotes from Dr. King, illustrated with images from today’s events to show their continued meaning. If they don’t manage to comfort the afflicted on this national holiday—and at least unsettle the comfortable—they’re followed by a slide show with even more quotes.


1. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Where Do We Go From Here? [1] August 1967 speech.

A long chain of corporations and banks enriched itself by triggering the events that led to the Great Recession, and many of them took Federal bailout money when it happened. Each of them has a Corporate Social Responsibility policy, designed to show they’re good citizens who give back to the community. And each of them has a fleet of lobbyists working to protect their privileged status and tax benefits.

The poverty rate, which had been declining, started to rise again in 2000. That year it stood at 11.3%, but by 2009 the Census Bureau reported that it had climbed back to 14.3%. At last count, 43.6 million Americans lived in poverty. In raw numbers, that’s the highest number since these statistics were first collected more than fifty years ago (although it’s been higher as a percentage of the population).

We’re moving in the wrong direction. Children are being hit the hardest, and their rate of poverty is growing the fastest. More than 20% of children in the United States – one child in five – lived in poverty in 2009. The poverty rate for African Americans was 25.8%, a considerably higher percentage than possess a college degree. A college education is still the best ticket out of poverty – but there’s considerable pressure to cut funding for education, too.

Poverty rates would have been even higher if not for unemployment insurance, which was not extended for the long-term unemployed. That means they’re likely to jump again. The “99ers” have exhausted their ninety-nine weeks of special unemployment, and the agreement that extended tax cuts for the wealthy and the middle class included nothing for them.

(photo by Jeff Schrier, Saginaw News)


2. “We must develop a federal program of public works, retraining, and jobs for all – so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened … There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum and livable income for every American family.” Where Do We Go From Here?

Had Dr. King’s vision become reality, it wouldn’t have been necessary to extend unemployment for the 99ers. As he said:

“The unemployed, poverty-stricken white man must be made to realize that he is in the very same boat with the Negro. Together, they could exert massive pressure on the government to get jobs for all. Together they could form a grand alliance. Together, they could merge all people for the good of all.”

Today the idea of Federal support for jobs is considered so politically unfeasible that President Obama didn’t even bother asking Congress for the full stimulus package economists felt was needed – and that was in a national emergency. The only bills that can passed are those that disguise tax breaks for corporations as “stimulus” spending, even though there is widespread agreement they’re an ineffective way of creating jobs when there’s not enough consumer demand.

With 15 million people out of work, demand is harder to come by. And the rapid rise in long-term unemployment is a portrait of human loss, the outline of human beings cast out of productive, wage-earning lives into an existence of hopelessness and deprivation:

Some people “celebrated” last month when the official unemployment rate dropped from 9.8% to 9.4%. (In the mid-sixties there was vigorous protest at the idea that 5% might be an acceptable unemployment level.) The racial disparities of Dr. King’s day haven’t changed much, at least as far as employment is concerned: The African American rate that month was 15.8%, as opposed to 8.5% for Caucasians. Official figures reflect the fact that unemployment in the black community is twice that of whites – and the true difference is probably even greater, once figures are adjusted for those who have given up seeking employment. Underemployment is also considerably higher among African Americans.

But Caucasians aren’t winning this game, either. 8.5% is a devastating figure. Increased employment for some people means more jobs for all, as newly-employed workers spend their earnings and stimulate economic growth. Dr. King’s words are as true today as they were when he spoke them: A unified movement to demand more jobs would benefit all races and communities in the United States.

Income support for lower-income Americans was cut during the Clinton years, in the name of welfare reform. Dr. King’s dream of an annual minimum income for all Americans, working or unemployed, may sound hopelessly radical today. But Richard Nixon proposed a guaranteed national income (he called it a “negative income tax”) and it almost made it through Congress while he was President.

Could a President as economically progressive as Richard Nixon get elected today? It’s hard to tell, because nobody’s tried lately.


3. “A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.” Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence [2], April 1967 speech.

(Daimler Maybach sedan, manufacturer’s suggested retail price $366,000 – plus delivery and other charges)

The gap between the wealthy and the rest of society is greater now than it was when Dr. King spoke those words in April, 1967. The progress we made toward reducing poverty is being eroded as the result of increasingly maldistributed wealth, Wall Street’s reckless gambling, and the cost of the Great Recession that followed. Wall Street’s doing fine, now that it has been rescued by the American public. But the American public isn’t doing so well. We threw a life preserver to the drowning bankers, and now they’re sitting on the shore as millions of their rescuers go down for the third time.

As economist Edward Wolff [3]explains, wealth inequality has more than doubled in this country since the mid 1970s. The GINI coefficient, which measures economic inequality, has risen nearly 20% since it was first measured in this country (coincidentally, the same year Dr. King’s speech was given.)

This increasing disparity in wealth has been greatest for the top 0.5% of earners – the wealthiest of the wealthy – yet their tax burden has dropped from 70% in 1967 to 35% today (it was scheduled to “soar” to 39.6% until the Obama/McConnell tax deal of December 2010). And hedge fund managers – including the billionaires – continue to pay 15% instead of the 28% commonly paid by teachers, nurses, and police officers. (One hedge fund manager likened the possibility of a change to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.)

The Federal minimum wage, however, has dropped from $6.58 in fixed-dollar terms (1996 equivalent) to $5.29 since this speech was given. When Dr. King gave his speech, it was possible to support a family of three on this wage and stay out of poverty, but that’s no longer possible [4].


4. “The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that encourages men to be I-centered rather than thou-centered.” Where do we go from here?

The I-centeredness of American business leaders has reached a level Dr. King could not have dreamed of. Two short years after Wall Street ruined the economy and was rescued by the American people, the depth of its self-absorption and self-pity was a miracle of human indulgence. It reflects a self-centeredness so profound that its leaders are in danger of morally imploding, spiritual black holes in an amoral universe.

Case in point: Steven Schwartzman, the hedge fund manager we mentioned earlier, who felt that paying taxes on his billions’ at a laborers’ rate was the moral equivalent of the invasion of Poland.

Or Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who said “We’re very important … we do God’s work.” (Reverend King might beg to differ.)

Or erstwhile Democrat Daniel S. Loeb [5] comparing himself and his fellow investors to an oppressed minority, victims of tyranny (a “tyranny” that rescued them and asked nothing in return), and even underpaid workers.

Or John Coulson, head of the Mortgage Bankers Association, lecturing underwater homeowners not to walk out on their mortgages – even as his organization was walking away from a headquarters building they lost nearly forty million dollars on in two short years.

Or the King of the Emo Executives [6], Jamie Dimon, pouring out his hurt feelings to the New York Times – “My Achilles heel?” Jay-Z rapped this year, “Love! I don’t get enough of it!” – even as his bank was on its way to earning record profits [7] in a time of record unemployment (and as it continued to engage in unscrupulous business practices).

Dimon, who has also contributed to the Democratic Party, is stridently resisting regulations that would remove the existential threat his bank (and others like it) pose to the economy. JPMorgan Chase holds 44% of the entire derivatives market.

Poverty’s up. Unemployment’s up. The American family is struggling. American businesses just had their best quarter ever [8]. Yet its leaders are whining. They’re using the rhetoric of freedom in defense of greed.

Dr. King trained his followers in the path of nonviolent resistance to endure jail, starvation, beatings, and even death without complaint or retaliation. He would not be impressed with America’s CEOs.


5. “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” Letter From a Birmingham Jail [9], April 1963 open letter.

Tea Party supporters may have populist impulses. But the movement itself was created with an outburst by an investor-turned-television commentator [10] who was cheered on in his rantings by traders on the Chicago Board of Mercantile Exchange. And the movement’s been funded by wealthy interests ever since.

After it was bailed out, Wall Street immediately redoubled its lobbying efforts. Banks were able to blunt the most effective and urgently needed financial reforms, like breaking up banks that are “too big to fail.” Now they’re hard at work eliminating the reforms that were passed last year, with the help of the Republican Congress they helped get elected. Big-bank CEOs have spent more than $170 million [11]to influence politicians in the last ten years.

The situation has gotten so bad that the International Monetary Fund – hardly a leftist organization – issued a report showing a strong correlation between bank lobbying and risky bank behavior in the United States. [12]

And that report was issued before the lobbying frenzy of the last twelve months – before the White House hired more bank executives to placate Wall Street, and before leading Republicans paraded themselves before bank lobbyists [13] like le Pigalle hookers on a Parisian summer’s night.

Guess who wasn’t represented? The American public, 72% of whom want Washington to do more to rein in Wall Street misbehavior [14]. Washington still lives by its version of the Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold, sets the rules.


6. “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal.” Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Recent court cases have revealed widespread lawbreaking on the part of United States banks – a “power majority group” – as they foreclosed on homes that in some cases they don’t even own.

Members of both parties have indicated an eagerness to rescue banks from the consequences of their own disregard for state and local laws, which has led to numerous and egregious violations (like foreclosing on a home that is fully paid for). But the criminality goes further: In many cases, mortgages changed ownership without proper notification to the borrower. The new holder of the note often changed the rules – about due dates for payment, late penalties, and other contractually agreed-upon terms – without informing the homeowner, then began imposing steep fees and penalties retroactively. (The banks own servicing companies that benefit from these fees.)

Many homeowners are now delinquent because of these wrongfully-imposed fees. Many of the solutions now being proposed would allow them to seize the homes anyway. The Administration’s HAMP program, ostensibly designed to help homeowners, has too often become an “extend and pretend” program that allows banks to take another year or two’s worth of mortgage payments before seizing the home anyway.

The incestuous relationship between big banks and government threatens to undermine fundamental principles of law and justice, some of which were established in the Magna Carta. A recent proposal from “centrist” group Third Way is typical (“centrist” is a term Dr. King wouldn’t recognize in its present use, where it denotes a right-wing ideology masquerading as middle-of-the-road “common sense’). It would override centuries of legal tradition and the legal responsibilities of the states [15]to protect the nation’s banks at the expense of their clients.

There are rumors that the Administration is sympathetic to solutions of this kind. It seems safe to say that Dr. King would not have felt the same way.


7. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” A Testament of Hope (posthumously published essay).

Banking has become divorced from reality. When the financial sector can enrich itself with speculation alone, it no longer needs to fund concrete business activities. That’s why statements like “Main Street and Wall Street rise and fall together” are 100% incorrect: Those two geographies have never been more distant from one another.

Robo-trading. Flash crashes. Databases where mortgages are traded like gambling chips. Incentives to lie, and to hide the truth. Banks are “automated greed factories [16].” The most human thing about banking in the 21st Century is its greed.

Is racism conquered? When infant mortality for African Americans in 2.5 times that of whites? With these disparities in poverty and employment?

Militarism? The Cold War is over and the Defense budget continues to expand. We didn’t shift military spending when the world changed—we added to it. The Homeland Security Complex is enormous, growing—and looking for targets of surveillance.

As for conquering materialism, how many people even want to anymore? Dr. King’s “three triplets” still walk the earth. And three years into what has become a permanent depression for millions of Americans, reality shows about rich people are still popular.


8. “There is also the violence of (African Americans) having to live in a community and pay higher consumer prices for goods or higher rents for equivalent housing than are charged in white parts of the city.” A Testament of Hope

Payday lenders [17] disproportionately exploit minorities and lower-income communities. Big banks (like Jamie Dimon’s) make it harder for working minorities to get credit through normal channels. Then they help finance usurious payday lenders who step in and offer credit at outrageous rates designed to trap the borrower in a cycle of debt, so that a “one-time” fee for borrowing against next week’s paycheck turns into a revolving loan that costs the borrower 300-400% in interest per year.

As a theologian and scholar, Dr. King would recognize a practice that was condemned as sinful in both the Old and New Testaments.

Big banks also back auto loans, which have been shown to charge more to African Americans than whites [18]. HSBC Bank settled [19]when it was found to have been charging minority customers more than others.

When it comes to banks, Dr. King would recognize the United States of the 21st Century. And he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the government is still more inclined to rescue banks than force them to change. He would probably be encouraging citizens to take action – action that would change things.


9. “Congress appropriates military funds with alacrity and generosity. It appropriates poverty funds with miserliness and grudging reluctance. The government is emotionally committed to the war. It is emotionally hostile to the needs of the poor.” Domestic impact of the war in America [20], November 1967 speech..

Today’s politics would look all too familiar to Dr. King. In the matter of poverty, as in so many things, the Washington consensus of “centrist” Democrats and Republicans fails to reflect the opinions of the American people.

He would be pleased to learn that the American people are dedicated to eliminating poverty – and to protecting Social Security, defending Medicare, and asking the wealthy to pay their fair share [21]. He might be disappointed, however, to find that there aren’t more national leaders speaking up for the public’s values in Washington.


10. “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Domestic impact of the war.

Dr. King was discussing a critic who told him that taking a controversial position on Vietnam might diminish his authority as a civil rights leader and weaken his political influence in Washington. Here’s the full quote:

And I had to answer by looking that person into the eye, and say ‘I’m sorry sir but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader.’ I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of my organization or by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

We’re speculating now, but we can’t help imagining that Dr. King might have challenged today’s leaders to try harder at molding consensus before seeking to achieve it. That was his idea of genuine leadership.