17th Century: The pilgrims fled persecution in the United Kingdom so that they could have the freedom to persecute the indigenous people of a new land.17-19th Centuries: These “Americans” trafficked in African people so that they could build great homes and cities, including the vaunted Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.19th Century: The complete eradication of all 562 Native Americans tribes – as many as 17 million indigenous people – was all but complete. 20th Century: Civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated when he challenged the insidious practice of economic racism, common throughout the country.
The Dardenne brothers latest film, Two Days, One Night posits a basic question for all of us to consider: Would you choose to receive a bonus if it meant that your colleague lost her job? Understanding that your colleague does her job well but she is not a close friend, what would you choose to do?
Martin Luther King Jr. often asked such questions of us. His final speech in Memphis, Tennessee was no exception: “The question is not what might happen to me if I stop to help the sanitation workers. The question is what happens if I do not stop to help, what will happen to them? That is the question.” Are you willing to sacrifice for others? Or is it you above all else?
I stumbled onto the work of Aeschylus through Robert Kennedy’s most famous speech delivered in Indianapolis on his 1968 election tour. It is a remarkable speech not only for its profoundly personal nature, but also in that it helped turn an angry crowd away from violence only moments after they had learned of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Kennedy’s words are also remarkable in that he painstakingly cites Aeschylus as a guide to understanding:
My favorite poet is Aeschylus. And he once wrote. Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. While rioting broke out in many other cities across the country that night, Indianapolis remained calm, in part due to words of wisdom written some 2500 years before.
The trial and execution of Donald Sterling has been swift and sure, leaving the talking heads crowing about doing the right thing. The problem is, just like Police Chief Bull Connor in the ’60s, Sterling is an easy target; it takes no effort to decry overt racists, the kind who mutter racist drivel or point fire houses at the innocent.
What would be interesting – perhaps even civilized – is if these same talking heads took aim at the insidious racism that permeates American society, the kind of racism that is shrugged off, such as the fact that while the majority of players are black (78%), the majority of coaches (53%) and general managers (60%) and vast majority of owners are white (96%). While many of these owners might be vaguely beneficent, none are looking to surrender ownership of the plantation any time soon.
This capitalistic wall is the very same issue that grounded Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 when he switched his sights from the blatant racism of the south to the economic racism of the north. It wasn’t a direction that the white politicians and business leaders took kindly too but was a problem quickly and violently solved.When the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies joined the NBA in 1995, the U.S. media was startled to learn that both organizations hired black men as managers – Stu Jackson (Vancouver) and Isiah Thomas (Toronto). This wasn’t much of a story in Canada because these guys knew basketball – one came from the NBA’s Head Office, the other from the championship Detroit Pistons – and that was all there was to it. However the story in the U.S. ran, sadly, like the Sterling story runs today: NBA Serves Justice. Too bad the same can’t be said everywhere else.
Sometimes I think about what might have been if Martin Luther Ling Jr. had not been assassinated in 1968. He might have led the Poor People’s March on Washington that summer and advanced the cause against economic discrimination. He might have advanced the cause for ending the war in Vietnam earlier; indeed he might have become a senator, even president. He might have established a very different course on foreign policy – no wars in Kuwait, Afghanistan or Iraq, genuine aid offered in the Balkans, Rwanda, Syria…
Yeah, I had a dream.
Much hoopla has surrounded the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, so much of it reveling in the historic words of Martin Luther King Jr. And yet, as iconic as those words and images have become, there must remain a distinct bitterness not only because a second march on Washington, The Poor People’s March of 1968, failed, but because deep-seated racism – the economic and back room sort – has remained as strong as ever. Martin Luther King Jr. made a most remarkable speech the night before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, remarkable not only for its eloquence and intelligence but for his understanding of what lay ahead. “(W)e are asking you tonight to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola…not to buy Sealtest milk…not to buy Wonder Bread. (W)e must kind of redistribute that pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies…Now not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis.”
The problem is that people – that’s you and me – just don’t care that much about helping each other, that action is only galvanized by violent images of oppression, never by the root of the cause.
“And so just as I say we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.” The sad thing is that Martin Luther King Jr. was wrong about that; injunctions do turn everyone around because the enemy isn’t the physical acts of oppression but the insidious inaction of indifference.
Richard Blanco (from Inaugural Poem One Today): All of us, as vital as the one light we move through, the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day, equations to solve, history to question or atoms imagine, the “I have a dream” we all keep dreaming or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today and forever.
President Obama (from Inaugural Day Speech): Progress requires us to act in our time. For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford a delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle. Or substitute spectacle for politics. Or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act.
Martin Luther King: (from final speech given on April 3, 1968): And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we’ve been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence or nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or non-existent. That is where we are today.