On this 50-year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King #mlk50 , I am struck by how similar *this* day is to that day long ago. As I write these words, teachers from all across the state of Oklahoma are striking. They are out in the streets, marching with signs. They are seeking basic human dignity and a living wage. They are telling the stories of how they must work two to three jobs, just to make ends meet. And they are joining their voices with similar strikes taking place in other states during the past few months.
Lest we forget, Dr. King was in Memphis to support a worker’s strike. It was a strike of sanitation workers in that town. They too were looking for basic human dignity, just working conditions, and fair wages. At the time of his death, Dr. King was increasingly standing up for the poor, and speaking out against economic injustice. It was not a universally popular thing to do. In fact, King’s “Poor People’s March” was having some trouble getting traction in the minds of the American people. People were worn out by the drum beat of bad news from Vietnam and the streets of America’s cities. And rather than backing off, King was doubling down….pushing issues of economic injustice, alongside racial injustice.
Some parts of America didn’t want to hear it. They were tired. There was just too much coming at them from too many places.
I mean, you’re weary, right?
You’re tired of the incessant tweets, the lies, and the continual denigration of working people, the poor, the LGBTQ community, Dreamers?
You’re tired of the school shootings and the hopelessness that comes after them?
You’re sick that teachers have to go on strike, just to raise the issue of living wages, right?
And you’re horrified by the murder of Stephon Clark.
Friends, 1968 was a lot like that. People were weary and tired, and the anger started spilling out into our streets.
But, I’d point out one crucial different between the Sanitation workers strike and the Oklahoma teachers strike which, in one way of seeing, makes today even more troubling than 1968. In today’s Oklahoma Teachers Strike, many of those involved have *masters* degrees. At the very least, they have undergraduate degrees and a teaching certificate.
Pointing this out is not to denigrate the education of the average sanitation worker. It’s simply to note this self-obvious truth: These teachers have done what our society SAYS we must do in order to fulfill the American Dream…they’ve gotten education…training….experience…
And STILL it is not enough.
in 2018 —whether you’re a teacher in Oklahoma, a Dreamer in Texas, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, or a Black man in his backyard in Sacramento— playing by the rules increasingly feels like it’s not enough.
And that COULD tear us all apart at the seams.
Or…we could see once again, the common cause that threads through it all. We could choose to stand up for one another, and come together to defend all those who simply seek to live in freedom and safety, and desire only a just playing field for all.
As I write these words, some of my dearest clergy friends from here in Dallas, connected with Faith Forward, Dallas, are on a bus tour across the South. I had hoped to be with them, but several conflicts this week and weekend did not allow me to attend, and regret it every minute. These interfaith religious leaders understand “intersectionality,” which is the broad term for what I’ve just been talking about….human beings standing up, and showing up for one another in their times of need.
Finally, I think I can do no better in describing all this, than to cite a powerful op-ed in today’s NYT’s by King ally and friend, Rev. Jessie Jackson (the first Democrat I ever voted for, btw…). He says more powerfully, and with more moral authority, some of the things I am trying to say here this morning:
“As he sought to move beyond desegregation and the right to vote, to focus his work on economic justice, antimilitarism and human rights, the system pushed back hard. In the last months of his life, he was attacked by the government, the press, former allies and the military industrial complex. Even black Democrats turned their backs on him when he challenged the party’s support for the war in Vietnam.
A growing number of Americans had a negative view of Dr. King in the final years of his life, according to public opinion polls. A man of peace, he died violently. A man of love, he died hated by many.”
And Jackson offers this observation, still true today: “America loathes marchers but loves martyrs. The bullet in Memphis made Dr. King a martyr for the ages…”
That is so true. Many of us marched quite a bit last year. Some of us have been criticized for that. I would counter: this is a unique time in our history. Some of us are marching more because…there are more marches! In case you’re missing the point, this specific time in America’s history is seminal. We will look back at these years, fifty years hence, much as we now look back at 1968. Whether your march or not, realize that there is a *reason* all this is happening, and the reasons are bigger and broader than any one march or person.
But, as in King’s time, the public tires of marches. And King, eventually became the martyr/myth. But, Jessie Jackson says, remember the marty/myth is not enough:
“We owe it to Dr. King — and to our children and grandchildren — to commemorate the man in full: a radical, ecumenical, antiwar, pro-immigrant and scholarly champion of the poor who spent much more time marching and going to jail for liberation and justice than he ever spent dreaming about it.”
Later this year, Rev. William Barber, and many organizers around the nation, will be resurrecting “The Poor People’s Campaign.” It’s important timing, for sure. Work that needs doing, and needs doing now. I was honored to be with Rev. Barber back in January, and to hear the plans for this movement. I’m so pleased by the work of our friends at “Faith in Texas” who understanding true grassroots organizing.
Like 1968, this year remains a very unsettled time. And it is most certainly a time for people to stand up and make their voices heard. Perhaps marching is not your thing. It’s not for everyone. Maybe politics is. Maybe it’s just organizing around a specific cause that breaks your heart.
Whatever it is, get involved a step out. As Rev. Jackson says,
“We are in a battle for the soul of America, and it’s not enough to admire Dr. King. To admire him is to reduce him to a mere celebrity. It requires no commitment, no action. Those who value justice and equality must have the will and courage to follow him. They must be ready to sacrifice.
The struggle continues.”