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If He Were Alive Today

January 15, 2018

Tex Sample is a faculty member at St. Paul’s School of Theology. He shared this yesterday, saying it’s a piece he wrote for the Kansas City Star this weekend of remembering and celebrating. I yield the floor

If Martin Luther King, Jr. Were Alive Today

The problem with celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory is that we have now so sanitized and romanticized the man, what he thought, and what he lived for that we have obscured his assessment of our country and his vision of what was required to turn the nation around.

One week before he was killed, he was at a party at Harry Belafonte’s apartment. Organizing for a massive poor people’s protest in Washington DC to mitigate poverty was already underway. Toward the end of the party King became somber. He acknowledged different opinions about tactics within the civil rights movement.

He spoke with feeling about the pain of especially young people who saw violence as the solution. “I feel their rage. I feel their pain. I feel their frustration. It’s the system that’s the problem and it’s choking the breath out of our lives,” he said. Later he added, “the trouble is that we live in a failed system. Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources…. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we’re going to have to change the system.”

For King the struggle had been around civil rights but now he knew it was economic, a more difficult and complicated challenge. He characterized the civil rights effort as “integrating into a burning house.” Belafonte then asked, “Damn Martin! If that’s what you think, what would you have us do?” King answered, “I guess we’re just going to have to become fireman.”

That was almost 50 years ago. Had King lived, especially the last 40 years, he would have seen the situation gravely worsen. Yes, there has been some integration of people of color in public accommodations, employment, schools (in part), and so on. But the situation in America has gone downhill rapidly in the last four decades, a prospect that would have called forth vigorous condemnation by King and prompted full scale nonviolent action by himself and others.

I do not have space to discuss the mass incarceration of people of color in America except to name it, but at least five areas would have called King into action.

The first are the inequalities of wealth and income that have profoundly increased and will increase all the more with passage of the Republican tax measure. Someone has said that supply side economics is feeding the horses so the birds can eat. I call it supply side sodomy.

Second, our legislators continue to increase the wealthfare for billionaires and big corporate America. For example, OXFAM AMERICA reports that the 50 largest US companies collectively received $27 in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts for every $1 they paid in federal taxes. Further, these 50 companies with earnings of nearly $4 trillion between 2008 and 2014 avoided taxes through offshore tax havens reducing their tax rate to 26.5%, well below the 35% required by corporate tax law. Further, in 1952 corporations paid one third of the federal budget. Now, they provide just nine percent.

Third, obscene concentrations of wealth have now eroded democratic government. In In a recent study Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page studied a total of 1779 policy issues. Their results show that today the preferences of the average American had “a minuscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” We no longer have a government of, by, and for the people. It is rather a government of, by, and for the rich and corporate America. OXFAM, again, found that from 2008 to 2014 the 50 same companies spent approximately $2.6 billion on lobbying while receiving nearly $11.2 trillion in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts. Further, for each dollar these companies spend on lobbying they get back $130 dollars in tax breaks and more than $4000 dollars in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts.

Fourth, from the end of World War II until the mid-70s, productivity increased 103% and wages kept pace with that at 103%. From the mid-70s to 2016, however, productivity increased 68%, but wages were flat or declined for most workers. Recently in a speech at the KC Public Library Thomas Frank reported that from 1930 to 1980 the bottom 90% of the population took home 70% of the gross income, but from 1980 to the present the bottom 90% of the population pocketed none of this growth.

Fifth, Raj Chetty and associates at Stanford University sought to research the reality of the American Dream to determine the likelihood that people born at different times would make more money than their parents had. They discovered that babies born in 1940 had a 92% chance of making a better household income than their parents. From that point on, however, the probability sharply decreases, so that those born in 1950 had a 79% possibility, in 1960, 62%, in 1970, 61%, and in 1980, 50%. Meanwhile in Kansas City a coalition led by SCLC pushed through a one-eighth cent sales tax for “East of Troost” and 70% of KC voters passed an increase in the minimum wage, only to be denied by a bought-off state legislature.

If King were alive today, his magnificent oratory would call us to organize, to take back our country, to throw out of Congress and state legislatures the gigolos and harlots of the rich, and to tell corporate America that wealthfare is ended.


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