Connecting the dots on Martin’s legacy: poverty and racism here, militarism there.

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March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963

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March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963

Video courtesy unknownmutant3000 via YouTube

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963

On this day that we honor, celebrate, and vow to continue to struggle the 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, we must remember something that was not heard in the official commemorations in Washington today:  the way in which the struggle here at home in terms of poverty is related to the struggle abroad in terms of America’s militarism.   We have to connect the dots between what Martin called the triple giant of evil:  racism, materialism, and militarism.

Martin was pressured not to make this link, and in fact it took him from 1963 till the famed 1967 Riverside church speech to speak “against the apathy of my own soul” and break his own silence against the war in Vietnam.

The result was powerful, controversial, and as of today, still a task for all the real followers of Martin to heed.
Here is Martin, in his own voice:

For those who say to me “stick to civil rights,” I have another answer.
And that is that I’ve fought too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concern.
I’m not going to do that.

Others can do what they want to do.  That’s their business.
Other civil rights for various reasons refuse or can’t take a stand or have to go along with the administration, that’s their business.

But I must say tonight that I know that justice is indivisible.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.


Michelle Alexander, lawyer, author, civil rights activist.

Michelle Alexander, lawyer, author, civil rights activist.

It is precisely this connection that has been missing from so much of the official commemoration of Martin:  we reluctantly grant that we have made some progress on racism (though we have much more to go), we reluctantly grant that poverty persists (though we refuse to grant that almost half of all Americans live at or near the poverty line), and we absolutely, categorically refuse to see the obvious:  that America the Republic has already become America the Empire.

We refuse to connect the dots that Martin connected.   We refuse to see the connection between the poverty and racism here to the militarism there–though of course the policies of America the Empire are already implicated in racial assumptions of billions of people in the world (majority of them Muslims today) being less than fully human, less than fully deserving of the same right to live, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that we cherish as the cornerstone of our own experiment.

One of the most powerful responses in refusing to segregate one’s moral concern came from Michelle Alexander, the author of the magnificent book The New Jim Crow, which takes a scrutinizing look at the creation of a permanent incarcerated class in America, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the creation of the prison-industrial complex.    Ms. Alexander posted the following powerful response online today.   It is these types of commitments that are the best and truest heirs to the legacy of Martin today.   It deserves to be cited here in full, with the full permission of Michelle Alexander herself:

For the past several years, I have spent virtually all my working hours writing about or speaking about the immorality, cruelty, racism, and insanity of our nation’s latest caste system: mass incarceration.

On this Facebook page I have written and posted about little else. But as I pause today to reflect on the meaning and significance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I realize that my focus has been too narrow. Five years after the March, Dr. King was speaking out against the Vietnam War, condemning America’s militarism and imperialism – famously stating that our nation was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He saw the connections between the wars we wage abroad, and the utter indifference we have for poor people, and people of color at home. He saw the necessity of openly critiquing an economic system that will fund war and will reward greed, hand over fist, but will not pay workers a living wage.

Five years after the March on Washington, Dr. King was ignoring all those who told him to just stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights. Yet here I am decades later, staying in my lane.

The New Jim CrowI have not been speaking publicly about the relationship between drones abroad and the War on Drugs at home. I have not been talking about the connections between the corrupt capitalism that bails out Wall Street bankers, moves jobs overseas, and forecloses on homes with zeal, all while private prisons yield high returns and expand operations into a new market: caging immigrants. I have not been connecting the dots between the NSA spying on millions of Americans, the labeling of mosques as “terrorist organizations,” and the spy programs of the 1960s and 70s – specifically the FBI and COINTELPRO programs that placed civil rights advocates under constant surveillance, infiltrated civil rights organizations, and assassinated racial justice leaders. I have been staying in my lane.

But no more.

In my view, the most important lesson we can learn from Dr. King is not what he said at the March on Washington, but what he said and did after. In the years that followed, he did not play politics to see what crumbs a fundamentally corrupt system might toss to the beggars of justice. Instead he connected the dots and committed himself to building a movement that would shake the foundations of our economic and social order, so that the dream he preached in 1963 might one day be a reality for all. He said that nothing less than “a radical restructuring of society” could possibly ensure justice and dignity for all. He was right.

I am still committed to building a movement to end mass incarceration, but I will not do it with blinders on. If all we do is end mass incarceration, this movement will not have gone nearly far enough. A new system of racial and social control will be born again, all because we did not do what King demanded we do: connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism.

I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.

Preach, sister, preach.   Preach and may we hear these voices, the heirs to Martin today.

May we all get out of our own lane of comfort, and march together, struggle together, resist together, build together, so that our children and our children’s unborn children can have a chance to live in the promised land of brotherhood and sisterhood, a beloved community of jobs and freedom, here, there, everywhere.