THINKING FOR OURSELVES
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, April 10-16, 2011
April is a time of reflection for me. I was a senior in college in April 1968 and vividly remember the news of Dr. King’s assassination. We had been planning to join him in May as part of the Poor Peoples Campaign. This was Dr. King’s effort to reinvigorate non-violent strategies with a visible presence in Washington, demanding an economic bill of rights to end poverty.
In the chaos after his death, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to go ahead with the occupation of the Washington Mall. Thousands of people converged at the Capitol, demanding the government end the war in Vietnam and commit 30 billion dollars to provide full employment, a guaranteed annual income and low cost housing.
It was a dispiriting time. The leadership of the SCLC was in chaos. The weather was against us; the tents and shanties of Resurrection City sank into the mud.
Two months after Dr. King was shot, Bobby Kennedy was killed. The Poor People’s Campaign faded and the nation elected Richard Nixon its new president on the promise of “law and order.”
It was a time of despair. The country was drifting further away from the promise of those early days of the civil rights movement when we felt that we were remaking America into a democracy that included all of its people.
Those moments are on my mind now as we witness the vicious attacks on unions, teachers, immigrants, urban dwellers, students, the homeless, our young, our elders and those least able to care for themselves. In honor of Dr. King , thousands of people around the country have rallied to protest against those who have taken over the halls of state legislatures initiating and supporting policies to strip away basic rights and protections for people.
These protests are essential for our own self-respect. But they are not sufficient to turn the tide.
A year to the day before he was killed Dr. King spoke about breaking the silence on Vietnam.
King came to this speech with agony. He had witnessed the uprisings in Watts where the young people challenged his commitment to nonviolence. He was increasingly isolated and exhausted. He said early in the speech, “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.”
Dr. King said he was compelled to “make a passionate plea to my beloved nation” because he “knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”
From that perspective Dr. King challenged us to recognize that we were on “the wrong side of a world revolution.”“Increasingly,” he explained, “by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken … by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.”
He challenged us, “If we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. …We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
King did not live to give shape to this transformation. But he left us with the challenge to “engage in the positive actions” that “make democracy real.” This requires much more than protests from us all.