Democratic Underground

King's Lessons Lost

January 18, 2006
By Joseph Hughes

On Monday, millions of Americans commemorated the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., remembering the words and deeds of one of the world's foremost activists and humanitarians. President Bush was no different, as he said that King and Rosa Parks, in asking America to be true to its founding ideals, "roused a dozing conscience of a complacent nation."

Bush, in that rare moment, was right in saying that King and Parks helped wake America from its slumber. But no sooner had he honored their legacies than Bush himself returned to his job, doing his best to erode the very tradition the day's honoree represented. Thanks to the president's dozing conscience and America's complacency, King would find a home today not so dissimilar than that he sought to change four decades ago.

On poverty

"The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty."

In his later years, King became a tireless advocate for America's less fortunate, recognizing that poverty and class inequality was a grave threat to the nation. How has Bush, who yesterday praised King's efforts, embraced his work? By toiling to destroy the very social safety net leaders like King fought to strengthen. Health care premiums are up, as are the amount of uninsured Americans. Wages are down, jobs are scarce and unemployment is up. The number of Americans living in poverty has risen each year that Bush has been in office, with one in five children living in "relative" poverty. As millions see their retirements becoming less and less secure, the administration has made climbing out of financial hardship more and more difficult. And Bush's answer to these problems? Tax cuts for the well-off.

Nothing illustrated the Bush track record more than the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Gulf Coast's poor - most notably in New Orleans - suffered terribly while America watched. Unable to leave and left behind by their government, the less fortunate cried out, many stranded and abandoned at the Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. And what was Bush doing while his government dragged its feet and refused aid? He took a trip out West, where he found time to play guitar. And when survivors needed their government most, many were shuffled around - some in locations resembling concentration camps - kept in the dark and found it difficult to get much-needed assistance. Upon visiting New Orleans and making a grand prime-time pronouncement, Bush set about ignoring the promises he made to a suffering region and a grieving nation.

On war

"This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love."

Just as King fought for the poor, he too spoke out against America's war in Vietnam. His words rang true then, just as they would now. In 1967, King recognized the toll the war was taking on America and her national conscience. How unfortunate that his message has gone unheeded from the very president singing King's praises Monday. Would an anti-war King be so honored if he were alive today? Or would he be branded a traitor, someone who would rather offer therapy and understanding to our attackers than a good smiting? The War President should know the answer to that question.

Every piece of bad news coming from the Middle East masquerading as the march of freedom disgraces King's legacy. So little has changed, in fact, that King may as well have been speaking not about Vietnam, but Iraq, where our forces have used chemical weapons on civilians. Where more than 2,200 Americans have died. Where veterans are sent without proper armor and come home without proper benefits. Where widespread human rights violations sully King's message. And in the name of this war, Americans have exchanged their civil liberties for the promise of protection, allowing crimes like illegal domestic spying to occur. King was surveilled then. Do you doubt he'd be tracked now?

On equality

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

If you asked anyone what King's gift to the world was, they'd likely discuss his ability to motivate people to fight for their rights, for the rights of others. While his early struggles dealt primarily with race, King's teachings extend far beyond black and white, his words resonating universally. His widow, Coretta Scott King, for instance, has embraced the gay rights movement and has fought for women's rights. Both have taught us that equality is a right, not a privilege.

As de facto leader of the Republican Party, this president, on the other hand, presides over a body more concerned with the hegemony of the ruling class than the equality of all Americans. Bush and his party treat homosexuals and women as second-class citizens. His Congressional counterparts couldn't even unanimously apologize for not doing more about lynching. His judicial nominees are no different, arguing against equal pay in the workplace and in defense of race- and disability-based discrimination. And when the time came to honor Parks, his party used it as an opportunity to ease its bad reputation, a photo-op intended to remake Samuel Alito's image and rehabilitate the Republicans' lackluster track record.

In honoring King, Bush said, "Martin Luther King lived on that admonition to call our country to a higher calling, and today we celebrate the life of an American who called Americans to account when we didn't live up to our ideals." Now that King is gone, however, who will call this president to account? While everyone would agree that it is important to commemorate a leader like King, what's more important is remembering his lessons long after the ceremonies have ended. Doing the former, as President Bush has proven, is far easier than doing the latter. Praising leadership is one thing. Exemplifying it is another.

Joseph Hughes is a graphic designer and writer by day and a liberal blogger by night. Read stories like this and many more at his blog, Hughes for America.

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