Tag Archives: Martin Luther King Jr.

Reflections on Martin Luther King Day

We do not celebrate the entire Martin Luther King. There will be many video clips on television today of his I Have a Dream Speech or him walking arm-in-arm with other protestors to illustrate his nonviolent values.  People will write paragraphs about his bravery in the face of extreme hatred, kids in school tomorrow will be asked what Martin Luther King means to them and we will all congratulate ourselves on how far we have come in race relations since King’s time. Thank goodness we live in an enlightened era where whites and blacks can meet as equals. We even have a black President now, who will surely say a few celebratory words today for MLK and what he stood for.

This has become the function of Martin Luther King Day. It has served as our annual exercise in self-delusion.

The first delusion is our view of Martin Luther King. I have written before about the lousy treatment he gets in the history textbooks. The fact is that we really only celebrate pre-1965 King. We remember the man who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, wrote a letter from a Birmingham jail, gave the I Have a Dream Speech and stood behind President Johnson as he signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The other MLK, the one who criticized the war in Vietnam and marched against poverty, scarcely receives a mention. His struggles in the name of oppressed people all over the world remain more or less invisible. We want to crown Martin Luther King as the head of an entire race. In reality, he was the leader of a class.

The sanitizing of King’s legacy serves a purpose. It makes it seem as if the only oppression that exists in the United States is racial. Towards the end of his life, King had fully realized that the struggle for racial equality at home was part of a worldwide struggle against oppression in general. The source of this oppression was economic. Inequality in all of its forms was sustained by an economic system that favors very few and impoverishes the rest. After his fights against southern segregation, he turned to struggles against economic inequality. He supported union activism and started the Poor People’s Campaign. His anti-poverty activities and anti-war stance got him labeled a communist by many of his critics.

Our celebration of King’s accomplishments is actually a deception. While personal relations between black and white may have improved over the years, poverty has gotten much worse. Since MLK’s death, millions of Americans who used to be middle class have slid down into the ranks of the poor. At the same time, a select few have risen to the ranks of the super-wealthy. The misdistribution of wealth in the United States would go on to define the post-King era of American history. Celebrating Martin Luther King Day the way we do is part of the American tradition of ignoring that growing poverty.

In truth, we have not even come close to fulfilling MLK’s dream. 22% of the black population lives in poverty. The privatization of prisons and the more strict anti-drug laws of the past 35 years have made jail the only end point for that 22%. Education deform has ripped community schools out of minority neighborhoods and replaced them with charter schools. The veteran teachers that used to serve those areas are mostly gone, replaced with the inexperienced half-teacher preferred by charter school operators. Education deform is part of a larger process of re-segregation that has taken place over the past 35 years.

And that re-segregation is not being carried out by rabid racists, like the types that blocked the door to the schoolhouse to prevent black children from entering. Instead, re-segregation has taken place with the complicity of both political parties in every part of the country. It has been clothed in the language of free markets and small government. Instead of blocking the door to the schoolhouse, they build a sparkling new schoolhouse that masks the cheap education being offered inside. Instead of bringing back Jim Crow laws, they destroy any part of the federal government that was designed to redress the imbalance between rich and poor. Medicaid, Medicare and welfare have all been destroyed or severely attacked. Minimum wage laws and worker rights have been denuded. Instead of lifting up the least among us, which is what MLK really fought for, we pick on the weakest and blame them for America’s problems.

This re-segregation is not purely physical, although spatial separation is a large part of it. Instead, it is a segregation of class. The conservative ascendancy of the past 35 years has been a long-term attempt to ensure everyone stays in their proper classes. Anything that could account for social mobility, like a good education, is being eroded away. In place of free opportunity, we are left with a static arrangement of neo-feudalism where everyone knows their place. The wealthy are entitled to buy politicians and do whatever they want in business and in life. The poor get stricter drug, speech and anti-workers laws designed lock them into a hopeless existence.

Martin Luther King Day should not be a day for self-congratulation. Instead, it should be a day of mourning where we reflect on why we are so far from fulfilling his dream of true equality.

Why the Assailed Teacher?

All public school teachers are assailed teachers. Our rights, our pensions, our salaries, our entire way of life are under assault by a cadre of very wealthy people who call themselves education “reformers”. The pecuniary reasons for these attacks are well-documented: ending teacher pensions would leave room in state budgets for further tax breaks for the wealthy and the charter school craze they advocate further enriches their bank accounts. It is obvious to people who know even a tiny bit of recent American history that “ed reform” is merely an extension of the rich’s war on the poor that began in earnest over 30 years ago. Part of their strategy in this war has been to increase overall poverty while simultaneously making it invisible. Since the 1980s, the politicians, the media and other assorted lickspittles of the wealthy have consistently shunned any mention of the word “poverty”. They have attacked the few advocates of the poor as people who engage in “class warfare” or as socialists. Part of the reason for the war on teachers is due to our proximity to the issue of childhood poverty and our role as advocates for poor children. Silencing us is part of a decades-old strategy to move poverty out of the public consciousness.

Scrubbing poverty from the public consciousness starts with the history textbooks. The prime example of this is the canonization of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a saint. It is correct and just that King has become a symbol of justice. It is wrong that we sanctify only a part of him. To students in most history classes he was the driving force behind desegregation in the south, starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955) and culminating in the Voting Rights Act (1965). We have a neatly packaged 10-year bundle in which King marched, spoke, wrote and fought for racial equality. All of this is true and we rightly celebrate him for it. Yet, King falls off in the textbooks after this point. Most of them pick up the MLK story three years later in Memphis, where he was assassinated while working on something called the “Poor People’s Campaign”. This is about as much attention they give to post-1965 King and it is a thoroughly sterile and uninspiring account of perhaps the most pregnant moment of King’s life. Throughout these years, King was connecting the struggle for racial equality with wider struggles of economic equality in the United States and around the world. He believed that providing everyone with equal access to education, housing, employment and the other pre-requisites for a truly “free” life was the way to honestly achieve the racial equality for which he was fighting. This is the King that the textbooks leave out. For many of our students, the textbook version of MLK is the only version they will ever hear of. Our students in NYC public school, who are overwhelmingly poor, will never idolize King for his fight against poverty. This is of course by design since, if they did, they might realize their own conditions are worth fighting for.

The textbook Martin Luther King is the Rosetta stone for the way we have treated poverty over the past 35 years. It is a non-issue. The assumption is that there is ample opportunity to succeed in the United States; the only barriers worth struggling against are those of race and gender. It is a narrative with broad-based appeal. Everyone, liberal and conservative, can give lip service to racial and gender equality. This is the rhetorical end-point of every mainstream political ideology, “we should do so-and-so in order to give all Americans the best possible life.” It is the fabric of our political discourse. Not a stitch of it contains economic justice. Enter the education reformers. Their vision of school reform weaves seamlessly into this fabric. They say they want to close the “achievement gap”, which usually means the low test scores of brown kids versus the high test scores of white kids. The reason for this gap, obviously, is all the bad teachers and the unions that protect them. For the past 10 years or more (depending on where you are), teachers have been on the receiving end of an extremely effective smear campaign. Democrats and Republicans can get behind teacher bashing because the public debate between them is based on a consensus that they both have a desire to make the country better for everyone, regardless of race and gender. Education reform is the perfect storm for teachers. They can be assailed by liberals who claim they want to help urban minorities and conservatives who want to further privatize the school system.

Yet, every teacher knows that it is childhood poverty that hurts learning, including exam scores. Every time a reformer uses exam scores to show that public schools are failing, teachers are there to draw attention to the poverty that determines those scores. Both parties want to destroy teachers because they are paid off by the wealthy reformers to do so. The wealthy reformers know that teachers routinely commit the cardinal sin of modern public debate: they mention poverty. The elite have taken great pains to exorcise poverty out of the public mind. Teachers are the only professionals left with any voice to advocate for the poor. Rather than just a war on workers or public servants, the war on teachers is also part of the holocaust on poverty. Holocaust in this sense takes on its Hitleresque connotations: an attempt to eradicate the memory of a people. One of the reasons why the wealth gap has grown so large over the past 30 years is due to our forgetting of the poor in America. Teachers have been calling the attention of the nation to poverty for some time. They have always been a threat to take the invisibility cloak off of poverty. The elitist reformers spew such vitriol against teachers for this reason. Discrediting teachers discredits the issue of poverty. Destroying their rights destroys the power they would have to advocate for their students.

The school reformers who occupy elite positions in government and business have succeeded in inverting the narrative. Instead of being blamed as the source of the “achievement gap” due to the screw-the-poor economic policies they have pushed on us, they convince the nation that they are the good guys who want to help these poor children. Instead of thanking teachers for keeping the issue of poverty alive in an era when the rest of our vegged out nation pretends it does not exist, we assault teachers as the cause of some nebulous “achievement gap”. Just like the Black Panthers were dubbed the “most dangerous group in America” by J. Edgar Hoover and subsequently destroyed because of their anti-poverty agenda, teachers have been demonized as a prelude to their own destruction. The blatant protest against wealth inequality that is Occupy Wall Street has been met with blatant brutality by the elite’s police forces. In the same way, teachers have reminded the country that childhood poverty persists in America and now we are paying for that with being abused in the public debate. The assailed teacher is a phenomenon of the holocaust on poverty.