Last Sunday thousands gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to dedicate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Like many African-Americans who were not fortunate enough to attend the ceremony in person, I was glued to my TV watching many of our nation’s most prominent leaders, including President Barack Obama, give passionate speeches about the impact Dr. King had on our country.
Meanwhile, not far away, a small group of Occupy D.C. activists that included Cornel West and Grammy-nominated singer Raheeem DeVaughn were honoring King’s legacy in a different way. They were getting arrested for sitting on the steps of the Supreme Court to protest the same wealth inequality King gave his life crusading against.
I am struck at the similarity between the Occupy movement and the Poor People’s Campaign Dr. King led in 1968, before he was gunned down during a visit to Memphis to support sanitation workers—many of them poor African-Americans originally from the Mississippi Delta—who were striking for both decent pay and a measure of respect.
King organized a march of 2,000 poor people of all races, creeds and colors to begin in Mississippi and peacefully make their way to the National Mall. Their demands were not extravagant: Jobs, insurance for the unemployed, a fair minimum wage and equal access to a decent education for poor adults and children. While King’s Poor People’s Campaign stopped short of blaming corporate America for these social ills, it is abundantly clear that he understood the problem of wealth inequality and the flaws of corporate greed.
“The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system,” King said, “encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.”
I believe that if King were alive today he’d be on the front lines—occupying Wall Street, occupying D.C. and other citadels of power—to seek economic justice for us all.
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