Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Sunday, January 16, 2011

MLK, Economic Justice and Public Education

Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while he was focusing on economic justice issues.

The charter school movement would have us believe that were King alive today, he would be promoting the corporate-funded charter school movement as the means to racial equality (despite the fact that charter schools are overwhelmingly segregated by race.)

But given where King was headed on economic justice before he was killed, I don't think that is the case.

Common Dreams reran an editorial from the Capital Times that focuses on King's work on economic justice issues and how that part of his legacy has been conveniently forgotten:

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was not assassinated at a rally organized by a right-wing talk radio host, or at the inauguration of a conservative Republican governor.

King, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaigner for economic and social justice whose legacy we celebrate with a holiday that falls on Jan. 17 this year, died while supporting the right of public employees to organize labor unions and to fight for the preservation of public services.

That inconvenient truth is sometimes obscured by pop historians, who would have us believe that King was merely a "civil rights leader." King's was a comprehensive activism that extended far beyond the boundaries of the movement to end segregation. His most famous address, the "I Have a Dream" speech, was delivered at the 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" — a historic event that explicitly linked the social and economic demands of campaigners for civil rights and economic justice.

And King always saw that linkage as being well-expressed — arguably best expressed — in the struggles of public employees and their unions for dignity, fair pay, fair benefits and a recognition of the contributions made by those who collect our garbage, clean our streets, police our communities, protect our environment, care for our aged and infirm family members, teach our children and deliver our mail.

It was to that end that King made his last journey, at the age of 39, to march with and campaign on behalf of members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in Memphis, Tenn., in April of 1968.

The sanitation workers of Memphis had experienced not just racial discrimination but the disregard and disrespect that is so often directed at those who perform essential public services.

No one should miss the fact that AFSCME, the union that they joined and the union with which King worked so closely, is now under attack by right-wingers who would have us believe that public workers are to blame for the problems that occur when policymakers blow the budget on tax cuts for the rich, bailouts for big banks and military adventures abroad.

King did not fall for the fantasy. He stood at the side of public employees, telling a Memphis congregation on the night before he died: "Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we've got to keep attention on … the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them."

King was proud to rally with public workers, and proud to make the connection between their struggle and the broader struggle for a fair and equitable economy that served all workers — public and private.

The defense of public employees — so essential to a functional society, and yet so frequently abused by the powerful players who would diminish the role of government in order to enhance their own wealth and authority — is as vital a struggle today as it was in 1968.

As Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies target public employees for abuse, it is as necessary for the right-minded and right-hearted people of Wisconsin to defend those workers as it was for the right-minded and right-hearted people of Memphis.

King's call echoes now. "Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness," he declared on the night before he was slain. "Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."

Brian Jones at Huffingtonpost brings the economic justice issue to the current education climate:

The current fad in education "reform" is to put as much daylight as possible between racial justice and social justice. The result is fine words about closing the achievement gap, but little to show for it. Worse, the proposals on offer today -- charter schools, privatization, testing, teacher data-reports -- threaten to actually widen the gap, while those that have demonstrably had some effect -- Head Start, desegregation, smaller class sizes -- are ignored.

This is an historic reversal. It was the Civil Rights Movement that placed the onus on society to deal with the effects of racism. "We are likely to find," Dr. King wrote, "that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished."

Today, the onus is increasingly placed on the individual teacher, or the individual student, or the parents. Any discussion of poverty or racism is tantamount to "making excuses."

"The task is considerable," King wrote, "it is not merely to bring Negroes up to higher educational levels, but to close the gap between their educational levels and those of whites."

But against the current "reform" consensus, King understood that providing a quality education is very much a question of resources. "Much more money has to be spent on education of the children of the poor;" King argued, "the rate of increase in expenditures for the poor has to be greater than for the well-off if the children of the poor are to catch up." He went on to argue for reductions in class sizes, for greater community involvement, a greater commitment from educators, and a strategy for promoting desegregation.

If we truly want to close the achievement gap, we should remember Dr. King's words. At the end of his life, his perspectives were diametrically opposed to those of today's political elites. Yet, come Monday, they will all line up to praise his dreams of equality. They will quote his famous speech from 1963, but not his perspectives from 1967:

"If the society changes its concept by placing the responsibility on its system, not on the individual, and guarantees secure employment or a minimum income, dignity will come within reach of all."
Somehow the American economic system - exposed as corrupt, predatory, and diseased by the financial crisis of 2007-2008 in which bankers, Wall Street traders, hedge fund managers and real estate executives gamed the system for their own interests, stole billions, then in many cases received government-funded bailouts while paying themselves billions more in bonuses - escapes responsibility when fingers are being pointed at teachers and schools.

But the system - along with the political and business elites who benefit from it - ARE at fault for so many of the problems in today's society, including the ones in public education.

As Brian Jones points out, until "society changes its concept by placing the responsibility on its system, not on the individual, and guarantees secure employment or a minimum income," not much will change.