Yesterday was The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s national holiday. Children were interviewed on national TV reading the words of the civil rights leader etched into the new MLK, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Churches, synagogues, and mosques held interfaith worship services across the country.
Original manuscripts of Dr. King’s speeches with his own handwritten editing comments crossed out or added were released for the first time by the King Center in Atlanta, GA. Most governmental offices and public schools and services observed the day by being closed. Yes, there were even several of those corporate commercials entreating us to “Keep the Dream Alive!”
Staff and administrative offices were closed at Episcopal Divinity School, but I worked yesterday, as did most faculty members and students and several librarians. Classes met so that students could receive the required teaching-learning hours necessary for full course credit for the two-week January Intensive Session. Rarely does the Dr. King’s birthday fall during the winter intensive session, so it really felt odd to be in class!
So I began my class on the “Ethics of Vocation and Work in Church and Society” reminding my seminar participants that throughout his life Dr. King championed the civil rights of laborers, poor whites, people of color, and the right to organize by the U.S. labor movement. We recalled that Dr. King spent his last days alive in Spring 1968 in solidarity with striking black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
There, he marched, spoke, and prepared the way for the proposed Poor Peoples’ March on Washington to occur later that summer. How fitting and proper that our seminar understood at a new and deeper level Dr. King’s vocation to participate in creating God’s “beloved community,” and his work of human rights and solidarity given in the ultimate measure, with his very life.
This Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday 2012 falls in the midst of the greatest economic insecurity in the U.S. since the Great Depression, and in the uncertain shockwaves of the instability of global capitalism in the European Union and the recession in the U.S. economy. In July, The Christian Science Monitor reported that, “All racial groups lost ground in the recession, but blacks and Hispanics lost a bigger share of their net worth, a new study finds. As a result, the wealth gap is at its widest in at least 25 years.”
Further, Paul Krugman suggested in The New York Times yesterday, “If King could actually see American now … he would see that … what we actually became is a nation that judges people not by the color of their skin — or at least not as much as in the past — but by the size of their paychecks. And in America, more than in most other wealthy nations, the size of your paycheck is strongly correlated with the size of your father’s paycheck. … Goodbye Jim Crow, hello class system.”
Wealth, poverty, unemployment, job creation, access to healthcare, racism, and the role of government are the issues that Dr. King believed were “inextricably bound” to the human flourishing from the perspective of economic and class injustice. The call for “jobs” must entail job creation commensurate with the skills of the unemployed, particularly in the declining middle class, with income that preserves and creates new formations of stable civic and economic communities.
Just as important and perhaps even more so, is the educational and skills development for entrepreneurship in service, technology, and information/communications industries for those in racially and economically marginalized communities – urban, ex-urban, and rural – that provides for serious competitive opportunity in economic sectors where there is economic mobility. For such changes to be envisioned, the old “private/public sector” arrangements will have to give way to new forms of partnerships of all the stakeholders, beginning with those who need work and those who need the physical and community infrastructures of economics to be repaired and to grow as an integrated program with “green” integrity.
In the electoral season now upon us, as well as in the continual grassroots organizing coalescing under the canopy of the 99%, we have yet another opportunity to concretely struggle with nature of “The Dream” for the second decade of the 21st century and beyond, and to participate in the creation of the “beloved community” ever before us. Let our cry, “Remember the Dream,” be more than a once a year sentiment. Rather, let it be an active engagement in it as our vocation and work in church and society.
* The Reverend Dr. Joan M. Martin is the William W. Rankin Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.