January 21, 2003

Bush's lip service to MLK

People packed the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on December 5, 1955. It was late, but news had spread quickly throughout the community that the Montgomery Improvement Association's newly elected leader, a young reverend named King, was to speak. There, that night, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. elucidated the founding principles of the modern civil rights movement: non-violence, unity, and perseverance. The dream began.

In 1964, this dream expanded. In Oslo, Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, King proclaimed, "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits." King began to take stands on issues that seemed outside of his domain as a civil rights leader. For instance, he began to speak on the war in Vietnam.

King's ideology was summed up in a Detroit speech: "On some positions, cowardice asks the question 'is it safe?' Expediency asks the question 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question 'Is it popular?' But conscience asks the question 'Is it right?'" There comes a time when one must take a position, not because it is safe, politic, or popular, but because it is right.

King's eloquent words resonate with us today. But dangerous to his legacy is the idea that his words spoke only of a single subject (racism) for a single people (blacks) in a single time (the 1960's). King's message was meant for a wider audience and for a wider purpose. Today, King's portrait hangs in George W. Bush's White House. Yesterday President Bush praised his "piety," while simultaneously opposing nearly everything King stood for. Thinly veiled overtures to a community alienated in policy and in practice by the Bush White House should not be taken seriously. Over the past month the Bush Administration has proposed legislation that is so damaging to minorities, the unemployed, the mentally unstable, and the poor that one must wonder if Karl Rove's political machinations are the sole reason for the portrait hanging.

On January 16, less than a week after re-nominating Charles Pickering (one of the most divisive judicial candidates in the past decade) to the Federal bench, Bush sent a letter to managed care organizations giving them the legal right to refuse to cover emergency procedures for people on Medicaid. These new guidelines allow health care organizations to deny care to the poorest Americans, even though they pay their health insurance bills. The "beneficiaries" of this plan will be working-class men and women with children and elderly dependents, precisely the people King knew the government was created to protect.

That same day Bush announced his opposition to the University of Michigan's practice of giving points for race in their admissions equation. While many prominent conservatives like to cite King's general wishes (exemplified in the "I Have A Dream" speech) as proof that King wished for a race-blind society, they ignore a 1965 interview in Playboy magazine in which King proposed a massive program of "compensatory action" to assist blacks in gaining access to, and paying for, top-tier education in the United States. Only after this extensive undertaking would America be ready for the meritocracy it was envisioned to be over 200 years ago.

I don't expect Bush to agree with King, as witnessed by his support for tax cuts for millionaires, limited birth control for women, and restricted access to adequate health care for the working class. The President is a representative of a party whose ideology prohibits support of any program that favors one group of people over another. This means that Bush believes that heritage, that is to say race, cannot be used in college admissions. One can then ask how Bush justifies his admission to Yale after earning "gentleman's C's" in high school. Progressives everywhere argue that in the case of historical institutional discrimination, it is the government's duty to rectify the errors of the past by attempting to provide a brighter future for the descendants of an oppressed group. The President believes that we should ignore the past. Progressives believe that we must rectify its injustices.

Were King alive today, he would be undoubtedly crisscrossing the country, talking about civil rights, ethics, just governance, and that struggle that seems so far behind us now. As his predecessor once said, sin was "politics without conscience." Indeed, Mohandas K. Gandhi and King were in agreement that the execution of public policy without some moral or ethical basis was a universal wrong. Were he alive today, King would be speaking across the country about the war on the poor, the war on the disenfranchised, and the war on the working class that Bush and Rove are so expertly executing.

Approximately 30 years ago, an entire race of people stood, for one brief decade, in complete opposition to the will of the aggregate majority, and simply, gracefully requested the rights they had been denied for nearly 400 years. King's words call out from the grave, haunting the halls of freedom, coaxing action from those who walk them. It is our duty to listen. Not because King is a nice symbol of inclusion, but because it is right.