Marching on Washington for Jobs and Justice

Who-and-How-e1376425067576New Orleans   We commemorate lots of things in the United States like the Civil War and the Declaration of Independence, so it is a good thing to see real respect given and attention paid to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in 1963.  There’s a nice feeling to the interviews in the paper from people we know who were swept up and onto the buses 50 years ago and their ability to share the experience.  Marc Morial, the head of the Urban League and former Mayor of New Orleans, wrote a touching op-ed piece in one of my hometown papers of remembrance of his father’s role and the rallies and marches in New Orleans at that time.  Tellingly he used his space to also revisit the issues of the original march and express his revulsion that Louisiana’s radical rightwing governor, Bobbie Jindal, has refused to allow the expansion of Medicaid to 400,000 low income citizens.

            It is good for us to be reminded of how much is undone and how much of what was at issue 50 years ago has never been addressed.  I’ve been reading March on Washington:  Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights by William P. Jones.  Maybe there are some errors here and there in the book, but Jones does a service in reminding how important African-American labor leaders were in the civil rights lexicon and in organizing the great march, even though they are often neglected.  Given the polarity of these political times and the attack of the right on various organizations like Planned Parenthood and ACORN, it has been valuable to remember with Jones that during that period the NAACP was banned  by law or court injunctions “from operating in Louisiana, Alabama, Virginia, and Texas.  Florida had launched a $50,000 investigation into communist activities of the NAACP and South Carolina had barred teachers from joining the group.   As a result the NAACP had lost 226 branches and nearly half it membership in the South and was forced to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees just to survive.”  This is hard work. Perhaps people forget how hard, even though that is the nature of the struggle and the price of justice, so the reminders are good that simply put, not enough is being done.

            Controversially, radio host and commentator Tavis Smiley, has called the administration and President Obama “weak” and “timid” on the very issues that Dr. King addressed.  The Times quotes him in an interview saying:

“If you’re not going to address racism, if you’re not going to address poverty, if you’re not going to address militarism, if you’re going to dance around all three of them, then you’re not doing justice to Dr. King and you might as well stay home.” 

Tough talk, but also the kind of talk that helped move the country 50 years ago when President Kennedy was trying to talk labor and civil rights leaders into cancelling the march.  Rev. Al Sharpton makes an excellent point that Obama does not need to dream, but as President needs “to lead.”

I find myself packing for Baltimore this week to help moderate the founding of a coalition of groups that began organizing with the inspiration of King’s speech as their motivation to broaden community organizing.   Initially they even called themselves the ESIMORP Network which is a mouthful, but honored King’s speech as PROMISE spelled backwards.  Now they are naming themselves CROP, but the real point of their work and my being there is easy to understand: the job is undone and the work has to continue.   We have to all keep marching!

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Shifting Political Values: Public Schooled and American Made

Teachers on strike in Chicago

Toronto   In American public and political life there used to be some clear tests that determined whether you were “one of us” or “one of them,” whether you were progressive or conservative, stood with the people or stood with special interests.  These markers were so stark and clear that a generation ago it would have been heresy to cross the line.  It would have been a breach of public trust and signal of the fact that you were unfit to stand for public office.

One of the clearest examples was in the car you drove.  Whether favor seeker or politician you knew not to drive into a union parking lot in a foreign made car.  It didn’t have to be a poser’s pickup.  It could be a big Lincoln or a stretched Cadillac, but it had to be from the Big-3 and built by union labor if you wanted something from a union.

If you were looking for an endorsement as a politician or an alliance with a union, you didn’t offer them a newspaper for your organization, a bumper sticker for your campaign, or a business card that lacked a union “bug” at the bottom.  You could guarantee that there was some old member in the back who might not care what you said about any issue but was sure to raise the fact that you lacked a bug even if the Typographical Union was one of the smallest in the labor movement.  It was a signifier of where you stood, and really who you were.  It was a simple sign of respect like not spitting on the floor or wiping your nose with your sleeve.  It was something so simple and obvious that it spoke volumes if these small signs were not clear.

The same was always true about whether or not you and your children attended public school.  In a city like New Orleans you could get away with going to Jesuit High School, if you were Marc Morial and son of the Mayor, because it was a Catholic city and you were showing you could make it anywhere.  That did not disqualify you from running for Mayor, but it surely disqualified you from running for the school board if you or your children didn’t go to public school.  Everyone knew this.  You had no “skin in the game.”  You were simply an dilettante, an window gazer, and an on looker in the process, and best to keep your pie hole shut and opinions to yourself.  I can remember in Little Rock when candidates withdrew from elections because their children were not in public school.  This was a city where the integration of the public schools in 1957 was a national crisis, so to say you wanted to govern schools when your own children were not in them was anathema and a obvious disqualification.

For decades, the decisions of Presidents about where their children would go to school in Washington, public or private, was widely reported in the news.  Unfortunately, the Democratic trend towards Sidwell Quakers’ school has diluted the clarity of the politics behind a smokescreen of security, but it still means something and disappoints when Presidents speaking about education, line their children up on the playground with the 1% rather than the rest of us.

The loss of embarrassment and the sense of irony in modern political life when public figures fail to grasp this is shocking.  They seem to speed through the red lights now without stopping, but they would be very, very foolish to think that it is not noticed and resented by citizens and regular people.

A paragraph in the New York Times discussing a Chicago mother scrambling to take care of her children in the sudden forced teachers’ strike was telling:

“This was very bad timing,” said Karen Miles, who said she had to cancel work meetings on Monday to juggle her daughters. “I plan my day around their school,” she said, inside her daughters’ school — one of the contingency sites — on the city’s North Side, where one sign read, Your kids deserve what Rahm’s kids get, an allusion to the mayor’s children’s attendance at a private school.

There was a day when it would have been so obvious to someone as savvy and shrewd as Rahm Emmanuel that it would have been as natural to him as taking a breath of air or reading the morning paper to either have his children in public school or stay out of the debate.  When the sense of entitlement becomes a “given” to public officials and the protection of inequities without even irony or embarrassment becomes natural rather than taboo, then the changes in our public life are out of hand.  When teachers in Chicago say the strike speaks to a lack of “respect,” just as driving a foreign car once did or using a scab printer or similar affronts to standardized symbols about where you stand and who you stand with, this is what they are speaking in a voice louder than any bullhorn and clearer than any picket sign.

 

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