Linking arms

I have spent the last week listening to recordings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. Coincidentally, I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Civil War and began reading the first book for the Dakota Discussions, Geraldine Brooks’  “March” which takes place during the 1860s.

I have listened to Dr. King’s speeches in the past and I had also watched the Civil War series some years ago. It seems, however, every time I listen to Dr. King, I hear something new. Every time I watch Burns’ documentary I understand even more clearly the horror of that war within our own borders.

It is now estimated that nearly three-quarters of a million Americans died in the war between the states, by far the greatest toll of any war in American history. As many or more soldiers died of disease and infections as in battle. Efforts to abolish slavery was one of the reasons for dividing the country, but the war was also about power, greed and fear.

A hundred years after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King stood in Washington, DC and gave his now famous “I have a dream” speech to a quarter of a million marchers assembled on the Washington Mall. Marchers gathered there to demand racial equality, civil rights and the freedom guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and extended to their ancestors in the Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. King preached nonviolent resistance. Repeatedly he pleaded with his followers to act, but to do so without striking back, even when set upon by dogs, fire hoses, billy clubs and jail cells. King spoke out against the war in Viet Nam not only for the harm rained down on the Vietnamese, but the damage done to the young Americans who were sent to fight. He spoke about economic and social inequality, not only as experienced by black people, but by the poor of all races and ethnicities.

One hundred and fifty years have gone by since the Civil War tore our nation in two.
Fifty years have passed since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech in which he describes his dream for an America where everyone has equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness. It would be naive to think we have gotten to the place King dreamed of.

I have come to understand something in thinking about the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the politics of today. Much of the inhumanity we inflict on each other in this country and around the world comes from two things: greed and fear.

Included in my definition of greed is not just the desire to accumulate wealth, but to accumulate the power that comes with wealth. Slavery made it possible for many plantation owners to accumulate great wealth. They were able to sell cotton cheaply to cotton mills around the world because they did not have to pay their workers. They only had to feed and house them in a minimal fashion. The plantation owners were afraid of their slaves. They feared allowing them to be educated because then they could read incendiary pamphlets distributed by abolitionists. They feared being killed, beaten and robbed by slaves who had been beaten, killed and robbed of freedom. Those in power were afraid of losing their position and their wealth. They were afraid of not having enough to maintain their way of life.

It is not hard to find the same kind of greed and fear in the world today. The wealthy seek even more wealth. Those whose wealth puts them in the top one percent of all Americans fear they will lose what they have. They are willing to use their wealth to buy the political power necessary to protect their wealth.

The middle class worries that the poor economy will continue to erode the comfortable lives they have earned through hard work. John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We think we all are someday going to be rich and powerful. We seem to think we need to defend the rights of the one percent because we are going to be one of them someday. Fear that we will become poor makes us strike out at those who are already poor. We believe that the wealthy deserve their place in the world and that the poor also earn their place. If we believe we are in control of our own destiny, it is possible that we, too, can become rich.  It is hard to admit that the poor are poor for reasons not entirely in their control, or that the rich have accumulated their wealth without earning it. Admitting this implies the American Dream is a myth and we fear never being able to move up the economic ladder and to have enough. So we blame the poor for their own meager existence and for undermining ours.

As the divide between the rich and the rest of us increases, the chance of achieving even a morsel of the American Dream becomes less likely. Fewer of our children will be able to access a good education. Fewer of our grandkids will have the well-connected acquaintances to help them get a foot in the door needed to access a high paying career. Working too many hours a day for too little pay leaves little time for good parenting and involvement by parents in their children’s development. Poor nutrition leads to poor learning.

Dr. King knew that poverty enslaved more than his own people. He encouraged workers, white and black, to work together. In his last speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968, he said

“You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.”

The pharaohs at the top of the economic ladder are working to keep us fighting among ourselves. They are afraid that if the rest of us have enough, they will not. They are afraid they will be treated as they have treated others. They magnify the stories of “welfare queens” who live off the work of others, of “surfer dudes” who buy lobster with food stamps, and of the uninsured who flock to emergency rooms for free healthcare. We are told that it is the immigrant, the poor, the hungry, and the unemployed who are responsible for our struggles to have enough. If we are kept busy protecting our place in line from those behind us, or even those just in front of us, we can’t link arms and take back the American Dream.
Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains