Thoughts on MLK – his life and legacy

For this, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, a few members of the A&W staff group offer these reflections.

It’s too late at night for me to still be wrestling with this simple assignment: a few words about the legacy of Martin Luther King in my life. And yet, though my daughter is goading me to ‘write something already and turn the light out’ in the room we share in the UUA’s Beacon Hill bed and breakfast, I’ve been struggling. I’ve been alive 52 years; Dr. King has been dead for 40 of them. I was about the age of my daughter when I ceased knowing the man and began knowing the legend: the holiday written into law by Ronald Reagan which gives me the day off, to lie in my warm bed in Minnesota February and listen to the sanitation workers out there in the cold picking up my garbage. Which one of us was it he died standing with in Memphis, again?

The junior high student that I was in April, 1968 stepped into a dark auditorium set aside for first period, for those who wanted to have ‘a time of meditation.’ Sitting weeping in the darkness, I realized with a start that I was about the only white student there, though the school was majority white. Later, one of the popular girls, a cheerleader, whom I had spent months cultivating as a friend, ridiculed me for this. “So, you MEDITATED?” she asked me loudly at lunch. This was a clarifying moment when I realized that I would never be a popular girl, and didn’t want to be. This was a moment when those UU values gave me strength and I said loudly back, head up, “Yes, I MEDITATED.”

– Rev. Meg Riley

On March 18, 1968, days before his murder, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King told striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., “It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis . . . getting part-time income.” Dr. King said, “We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life…Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God’s children… Now is the time for justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Last month on March 13th, the UUA co-sponsored an event with the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign held in Memphis, Tennessee to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Dr. King’s address to the striking sanitation workers. Along with leaders of faith, one of the speakers was Taylor Rogers, a striking sanitation worker who witnessed Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Speech, the night before King’s assassination, and became President of the Memphis sanitation workers’ union, AFSCME Local 1733. “We got tired” striker Rogers told the gathering, “And so we stood up and said ‘I am a man.’ Without Dr. King and the ministers who helped us, we never would have won that strike.” [Click here to read about it.]

Forty years later millions of Americans are still making poverty wages and Dr. King would indeed still call it criminal. His legacy inspires today’s movement for a living wage. It was while I was putting together Resources for Living Wage Days a couple of years ago that I actually read the entire “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The linkages King makes between the various injustices of war, poverty, and racism, the strategies he was moving toward, including boycotts and community investing, most certainly threatened the power structure, and the prescience with which he discusses his possible death are just incredible to read and show a leader who was so clear on the direction forward. He is completely relevant today.

In the course of my research I found a wonderful resource that I heartily recommend to all:
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project
at Stanford University

– Susan Leslie

I have joked amongst UU friends that if there were a pantheon of UU saints, Rev. King would be at the top. He is that much beloved amongst us. In my church, All Souls Church, Unitarian in DC, the Sunday closest to MLK’s birthday is second only to Easter in terms of attendance and energy. Just why is King so beloved? There have been other champions of social justice in our history, people who have been every bit as dedicated as him to their respective causes. But while King started in the struggle for black equality, he ultimately transcended personal causes. That is why, exactly a year before his assassination, he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and in support of peace. Even some of his own supporters told him that he should stick to his own issue, but King recognized that all causes for justice are inter-related, mutually dependent. That is why he supported the rights of workers, as both Meg and Susan talk about above. That is why his widow Coretta Scott King could state unequivocally that MLK would have supported the current struggle for BGLT equality had he lived to see it. King spoke for all his people.

Dr. King was a prophet – a modern day Moses. He delivered his people out of the bonds of legal segregation. Since we lost him 40 years ago we have been wandering in the desert, delivered from overt institutional racism but still struggling with systemic racism and more. We are not yet at the Promised Land, but we are a heck of a lot closer because of him.

Addendum (2008.04.13 4:43 pm)

Tracing back through a series of blogs, I found this great news article about Dr. King that pertains to the Wright controversy:

– Kat Liu

Religion, Race, and Reverend Wright

On March 13, a media firestorm began surrounding comments made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., former pastor of Southside Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. According to FOX News, “Sermon highlights [show] Wright . . . . portraying the country as institutionally racist.” FOX also called Wright’s comments, “anti-American invective.” Some news commentators went a step farther and condemned the entire Trinity United Church of Christ congregation as racist.

By now, many of us are familiar with Wright’s words, which expressed frustration and anger towards the United States government for its role in deaths from HIV/AIDs, the injustices of the Drug War, and the systemic racism of the criminal justice system.

These words have brought to the forefront the unique heritage and spiritual challenges that black Americans of faith carry to their places of worship and meditation. What does it mean to be living in a country whose government has authorized the enslavement, segregation and impoverishment of your race?

On the church’s website, Trinity United Church of Christ describes the congregation’s relationship with God as follows:

“God has superintended our pilgrimage through the days of slavery, the days of segregation, and the long night of racism. It is God who gives us the strength and courage to continuously address injustice as a people, and as a congregation. We constantly affirm our trust in God through cultural expression of a Black worship service and ministries which address the Black Community.”

As Reverend Al Sharpton said, and as UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford has repeated, “People of color have a history, not a hallucination.” Reverend Wright’s words ministered to the real, legitimate, and righteous anger of congregants whose inherent worth and dignity have been discounted in North America on the basis of racial identity for over half a millennia. The hubbub over Rev. Wright’s expression of this anger has demonstrated that white and black people of faith are sometimes out of touch with one another.

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

In conversation at our office, Taquiena Boston, the UUA’s Director of Identity-Based Ministries, spoke about the reasons for segregation in faith communities. “It’s why black people are sitting in black churches and not white churches–because white people do discount the experiences of African Americans, or in some ways require their silence to keep peace, so that [white people] can be comfortable. So when you spend six days a week having to calibrate and monitor and repress, when you come to the place where you’re supposed to be honoring the holy, and when you have an understanding that God sees all, it just wouldn’t do to be hypocritical or silent about the injustices and the oppression that you see operating in your life every day.”

Unitarian Universalist Reverend Kathleen McTigue addressed this same issue at the Unitarian Society of New Haven in her February sermon A Way Out of No Way: The Black Church in America. “Where we stand affects what we will see and how we will see it,” McTigue observed. “The undeniable truth is that the default center of our nation – in terms of power, language, definitions, history, money, privilege and most anything else you could name – has been and is white. And so still, in our time as in the past, in order to be black in America and also be strong, confident, proud and independent, something is required beyond what the general society is willing to give. That ‘something’ has resided for generations in the black church.”

Ministers speak to the issues which congregation members confront in their lives. Experiences of economic and racial injustice may be a greater part of congregation members’ daily reality and consciousness in some churches than in others. As one member of Trinity’s congregation said to ABC News, “I wouldn’t call [Rev. Wright’s words] radical. I call it being black in America.”

The words of Reverend Jeremiah Wright embody a powerful, prophetic convergence of race, class, politics, and faith that have inspired both feelings of joy and affirmation, and feelings of shock and discomfort. If we wish to grow in our relationships with one another, we must be willing to listen to things that may make us feel uncomfortable.

Developing an anti-racist consciousness is a powerful experience, and as any anti-racist person of color or anti-racist white person could tell you, it is often neither easy nor comfortable. Listening to the pain of others, acknowledging your part in it, sharing your own pain, and asking others to acknowledge your truth is one of the most difficult processes for human beings to undertake together. It is also one of the most worthwhile.

We as a nation cannot effectively address the economic and ethical challenges that face us without listening to the experiences of those in our country who have been discounted and marginalized. We must learn how the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination has put and continues to put black people and all people of color at an economic disadvantage. Reflecting on reconciliation, Reverend Sinkford said, “Race and class in this country are inextricably intertwined. If our work for racial justice does not engage with the realities of class it is doomed to fail. Likewise, if we try to reconcile class inequities without acknowledging race, those efforts are equally doomed.”

As an anti-racist ally who has lobbied against the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity, I am moved by Wright’s bold condemnation of injustice in the criminal justice system.

As an advocate for economic equality who has volunteered in post-Katrina New Orleans, I experience a feeling of sorrowful affirmation upon hearing Wright’s critique that the United States government has at times treated its citizens of color as less than human.

As a citizen of the United States, I feel pride that our faith leaders can publicly urge the government to greater accountability.

And as a Unitarian Universalist, I view Reverend Wright’s insights about race and class in our nation as a part of our second source of faith: “the words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

“It feels to me,” Sinkford said on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 2007, “that Unitarian Universalists have been stuck around the issue of race for far too long.”

The recent media storm around race is a challenge to people of faith to listen, to hear, and to get unstuck.

“It is not racism to name this truth [of the reality of racism and white privilege],” Rev. Kathleen McTigue wrote in her sermon. “It is a form of racism, I believe, to ignore it. Talking about race is difficult. Listening to the experience of those who have suffered racism is painful. But this listening is what black UU minister Mark Morrison has called “a passive act of power.” He said, ‘To open ourselves to that which we know will be painful is an act of strength.’ May we choose that act of strength. May we listen. May we respond.”


Coalition of Immokalee Workers Launches Petition to End Sweatshops & Slavery

“Juntos, somos más fuertes que Burger King.”
Together, we are stronger than Burger King.
–Lucas Benitez, farmworker and co-founder of CIW

This morning I was present at Capitol Hill Park for The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’s signing of the National Petition to End Sweatshops and Slavery in America’s Fields. So were Senators Sanders (VT) and Durbin (IL), Representatives Kucinich (OH) and Conyers (MI), Students United Against Sweatshops, the director of The Robert F. Kennedy Center, and many others.

It was a truly inspiring morning. Speakers recounted the coming together of tomato pickers in Immokalee (rhymes with “broccoli”), Florida in 1993 to protest unjust working conditions and wages. When the growers who employed the workers wouldn’t listen, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (or CIW) took their cause to the world’s largest fast-food corporation, Yum! Brands, which owns Long John Silver’s, A&W, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. In 2005, after an intense four-year boycott of Taco Bell, Yum! agreed to work with the CIW to improve pay and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers.

As part of the 2005 agreement, Yum! resolved to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes. According to CIW’s website, “Given that workers today receive roughly 1.3 cents per pound,” or about fifty dollars a day; $7,500 per year, “the raise amounts to an increase of roughly 75% for workers.” In April of 2007, CIW won a similar victory with McDonald’s.

But not every fast food corporation is taking responsibility. Burger King has not only refused to pay workers a penny more per pound of tomatoes, but is actively working to undermine the CIW’s achievements.

At the Petition signing kick-off this morning, Rep. Conyers said that he had just placed a phone call to Burger King’s CEO, John Chidsey, and left a message about Burger King’s refusal to pay Immokalee workers fairly. “John, wherever you are,” Conyers said to the press cameras, “return my call. I’m in the phone book.”

Senator Durbin declared, “The tomato on my hamburger is not worth the indignity that the workers of Immokalee must face every day.” And Rep. Kucinich stated, “The Civil Rights Movement is not over; it begins again today, and we need the help of American consumers.” Finally, Lucas Benitez, a farmworker and co-founder of CIW, spoke about the strength of consumers, workers, politicians, and companies standing in solidarity. “Juntos,” said Benitez, “somos más fuertes que Burger King.” Together, we are stronger than Burger King.

As the ceremonies wound down, I spotted a woman wearing a clerical collar in the crowd and went up to introduce myself. The woman turned out to be Reverend Noelle Damico, who has led the Presbyterian Church USA’s Fair Food campaign. The Presbyterians have done some amazing work around this issue, and their website features a great Burger King Campaign FAQ.

I left the petition signing inspired and disturbed–and if you’ve read this far, I hope that you’re feeling the same way. I am disturbed that Burger King, Wal-Mart, Subway, and Costco are contributing to the oppression of workers in the United States. But I am inspired that so many people are mobilizing around this issue. I hope that many Unitarian Universalists will support the CIW’s fight for justice.

In conclusion, here’s what you can do:

And finally, tell your friends! Heck, tell your acquaintances, and strangers, too. The farmworkers of Immokalee are counting on us. Now is the time to stand with CIW–and to prove that, together, we are stronger than Burger King.

Tenth Anniversary of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS)!

In 1996, the National Labor Committee published a report exposing the use of Honduran sweatshops by Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line, Kathie Lee, sold exclusively at Wal-Mart. The NLC’s exposé, along with similar concerns raised about Nike and Gap, brought sweatshops into the limelight. In response, concerned university students across the United States began organizing. Thus, United Students Against Sweatshops, or USAS, was born.

Members of USAS began by targeting their own universities to ensure that the clothing their university sold was produced under fair labor standards. But students didn’t stop there—USAS was directly or largely responsible for multiple gains made in the anti-sweatshop movement in the years that followed. Among these was the October 1999 announcement of Nike and other companies that they would comply with the requirement to disclose their factory locations. This was the first time that any garment industry company conceded to this demand.

In 2000, USAS members helped found the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization. In one year, over 80 universities joined the WRC, in spite of Nike’s “bullying” of WRC-supportive universities, such as NIKE CEO Phil Knight’s withdrawal of a $30 million donation to the University of Oregon. In 2001, the WRC and USAS achieved major strides for fair labor standards at the KukDong International factory (a Nike/Reebok production facility) in Atlixco de Puebla, Mexico, and the New Era factory in Derby, NY. Currently, over 170 universities and colleges are affiliated with the WRC.

Today, USAS organizes its works into three major campaign areas: the Sweat-Free Campus Campaign, Ethical Contracting campaigns which includes a campaign against Coca-Cola, and Campus-Community Solidarity campaigns, which includes fighting for living wages for campus workers, and campus workers’ rights to organize.

USAS has taken as its motto a quote from aboriginal Australian activist Lilla Watson,

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

USAS demonstrates its solidarity with workers in sweatshops and on college campuses by supporting workers organizing themselves for better conditions. They pay special attention to the rights of women, as 90% of garment industry workers are women. USAS also runs not only regional member blogs, but also blogs for and by people of color, BGLT folk, people who identify as Womyn-Genderqueer, and working class people. In short, USAS is committed to working for justice in a just and inclusive way.

So to celebrate USAS’s 10th birthday, try one of the following:

  • If you want to read a more complete and truly inspiring account of the history of USAS, take a look at their page on the History and Formation of USAS. If you are affiliated with UNC–Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, UC-Irvine, UW-Madison, Middlebury, Duke, Georgetown, University of Oregon, or Occidental College, you might find this article particularly interesting.
  • Visit USAS’s Take Action page and find out how you can become involved in the fight for workers’ rights.
  • If you are a university freshman, sophomore, or junior, you can apply to be an international summer intern with USAS, which will send 8-10 students to different countries to research, organize, and build relationships with workers, unions, and other allied organizations.

Happy Tenth Anniversary to USAS, and many happy returns!

Native American Activists and Allies Embark on the Longest Walk for Healing and Justice

Today over three hundred walkers are departing from San Francisco on a five month journey across eleven states to bring awareness to environmental and justice issues. Along the way, a rotating team of walkers will pick up trash, leaving 4,400 miles of road trash-free in their wake.

Iroquois tradition mandates that communities consider the impact of their decisions down to the seventh generation to come after them. The Longest Walk 2 is “a peaceful, spiritual effort to engage with the public about restoring harmony with the environment,” according to their website. The Longest Walk 2 is also setting out to call attention to how environmental degradation is hurting not only today’s communities, but also those of the future.

The walk is kicking off with a ceremony on Alcatraz Island, the site of Native American activists’ 18-month occupation from 1969 to 1971, which sparked modern Native American activism and resulted in the federal government shifting from a policy of termination to a policy of Indian self-determination.

Walkers will divide between two routes. The Northern Route will follow the route taken by walkers during the original Longest Walk in 1978, which helped defeat eleven bills that threatened Native American sovereignty. The Southern Route will trace the route of the Sacred Run of 2006, which added hurricane recovery to the justice agenda and passed through the Gulf Coast to be in solidarity with those rebuilding after the storm.

The Northern and Southern routes will meet in DC on July 11. You can follow the walkers’ progress by reading walkers’ blogs about their experiences in Voices From the Walk. Show your support by taking a look at the The Longest Walk 2’s wishlist of camping gear and first aid supplies, or sponsor a walker through Paypal. For more information, check out The Longest Walk 2’s website.

“We shall walk for the Seventh Generation, for our youth, for peace, for justice, for healing of Mother Earth, for the healing of our people suffering from diabetes, heart conditions, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other diseases.

Through the elements of the seasons, we shall walk through the rain, snow, over mountains, high winds, through the heat and cold, nothing shall deter us from completing our mission<. . .
Let those who doubt, hear our pledge. Let those who believe, join our ranks. As we walk the final miles, by our side will be elders, families, children, people of all races, from many walks of life, the old and the new America. All Life is Sacred, Clean Up Mother Earth.

–from The Longest Walk 2’s Mission Statement

Happy Mardi Gras and Super Tuesday! Let’s Make Some Noise About Gulf Coast Recovery

This year, Mardi Gras coincides with “Super Tuesday,” the day when the greatest number of states hold primary elections. This chance concurrence is a good opportunity to reflect on how the discussion about Gulf Coast rebuilding has unfolded in the presidental race so far–oh wait, that’s right: it hasn’t. Instead, Gulf Coast recovery has been conspicuously absent in campaign discussions and debates, in spite of the enormous need still present in the Gulf. For example, rent costs in the region have jumped 70%, less than 28% of the region’s former 82,000 rental units are on track to be rebuilt, and homelessness is escalating.

Last week several groups, including the Katrina Information Network, worked to bump a question about Gulf Coast rebuilding up in an online vote which determined the questions asked at California’s presidential debates. In spite of pushing the question to the number 1 position for the Democratic debate and number 3 for the Republican event, not a single question about hurricane recovery was asked during the debates. Writers at the Times Picayune speculate that the voted-upon question was omitted because it was too “wonkish”—for those of you living outside DC, that means too policy-related and esoteric. Similarly, in President Bush’s State of the Union address last week, Gulf Coast rebuilding was glossed over with three sentences of rosy words.

We owe it to those in the Gulf to make rebuilding a bigger topic during the remainder of the campaign season. Rather than deploring the Bush administration’s failures in handling the disaster, candidates should be acknowledging Congress’s continued failure to fix the situation, and out-lining the steps that they will take for Gulf Coast recovery during their presidency. Debate moderaters and journalists should be pushing candidates to explain their strategies to rebuild.

Part of what we can do in the election season is educate the candidates about what issues are important to us and what issues we want them to be addressing. It’s up to us to be accountable to Gulf Coast communities and keep hammering away until this issue gets addressed.

If a candidate visits your town, ask him or her a non-wonky question about their plans for how to rebuild the Gulf in a way that serves the needs of renters and low-income families. If you happen to know a journalist–or, better yet, to be a journalist–in the position of interviewing a canidate, ask them to question the candidate about rebuilding. If you take part in an online or telephone survey about what issues matter to you this campaign season, check the box for Gulf Coast recovery–and if there isn’t a box, write it in, or ask the survey-maker why it’s missing. Ask your friends if they’ve noticed the campaigns’ silence around rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

It is up to us to show the candidates that we think Gulf Coast recovery is important; otherwise, it will continue to be a non-issue during the campaigns, lessening the likelihood that positive change will occur during the next administration. So let’s make a commitment to challenge our candidates and those who control the media to make rebuilding part of the conversation! Happy Mardi Gras, all.

Native Americans and Federal Native Policy: A Conversation With the Faith-Based Community

At the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy, we believe that the best way to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is to continue to work for justice. The following blog post is offered in that spirit.

On Friday afternoon, Kat and I, along with advocates from a dozen different faith groups, met for a forum on Native Americans and Federal Native Policy organized by the FCNL. There we learned about a few of the current grim realities that Native Americans are experiencing as a result of the flawed policies and mismanagement of the United States government.

One injustice that we learned about concerns health–the infant mortality rate is 150% greater for Indians than it is for Caucasians. Indian life expectancy is six years less than that of the rest of the US population. And the suicide rate for Indians is two and a half times higher than the national average.

Tomorrow, the reauthorization of a bill to improve Indian health will be voted on in the Senate. Reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 2007 (S.1200), or IHCIA, would update and enhance the care that Indian Health Services and Tribal Organizations are able to provide. IHCIA would provide resources for the social service and mental health needs of the Indian community, as well as medical needs.

IHCIA will be voted on tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan. 22) at 5:30 PM. Because we found out about this issue so late, our office did not send out an action alert; however, if you want to give your Senator’s office a call before the 5:30 vote tomorrow (the sooner the better!), then check out the National Indian Health Board’s IHCIA Fact Sheet and Action Alert for talking points.

A woman from the National Congress of American Indians told us that Native Americans are a very dis-empowered community in regards to their voice on national issues. “We had a much stronger voice in the 1970s, and the difference was you guys,” she said, scanning the room. “It was the national church organizations.” The voices of people of faith speaking to their representatives in Congress can lend strength and support to Native American organizations that are seeking justice.

In the future, I’ll try to stay attuned to federal legislation related to Native American justice issues, so that our office can give you plenty of notice for the next Action Alert. In the meantime, check out the National Congress of American Indians for ways to get involved!