Jerry Large / Times staff columnist
Raising up one of us raises up all of us
It is a mistake to think of the modern civil-rights movement as being only about black people. Black Americans may have been out in front, but the movement was about more than getting a seat in a restaurant; it was about making America truer to its best self.
Martin Luther King Jr., who has come to symbolize the movement, recognized that and saw beyond the battles of the moment. He looked toward universal human rights and toward brotherhood that transcended color and nationhood.
He didn't lose sight of immediate struggles, but his philosophy, his motivations and his goals were much larger.
Still, it surprised many of his supporters when he began to speak more and more about the economic structures that made poverty inevitable for too many Americans. He surprised them even more when he spoke out against the Vietnam War and questioned America's role in the world.
When he was killed, King was organizing a poor people's campaign that would cross racial boundaries to attack the economic structures that institutionalize poverty.
Keeping anybody down hurts everybody.
You know that during slavery, white workers in the North tended to oppose slavery not because of concern for the enslaved, but because they knew the existence of slavery hurt them directly.
Employers faced with demands for better conditions or better pay could always say, well, at least you're not a slave. More than that, the existence of slavery devalued labor in the minds of employers and workers alike.
After slavery ended, black Americans continued to be paid less for the same work. Poor white sharecroppers would be paid a little more than black ones, but not enough to get them out of poverty. They could have tried to challenge the system, but the few times when black and white sharecroppers tried to join and make change, landowners used race to drive a wedge between them. Are you a white man, or are you ... ? Well, that question alone kept the system in place.
King said once, "In a real sense all life is interrelated. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be."
Today the black poverty rate is about three times the white poverty rate. But the white poverty rate is rising, and the disparity between rich Americans and the rest of society has soared since 1980.
While the economy flounders and millions of Americans can't find work that pays a livable wage, or even any work at all, the Bush administration finds more ways to give money to the richest sliver of the country.
Raise a complaint and they'll say you are trying to start a class war. Say something about continuing racial disparities and you are playing the race card. Criticize foreign policy and you are un-American. Odd attitudes for a country that began with a revolution and that is dedicated to equality and freedom.
But those words, those ideals, have never had meaning without people willing to make them real, to challenge baser human tendencies that compete with the ideals for our souls — greed, hatred, power lust.
The war does not have an end, and those who would challenge one ill must set themselves against all because they come packaged together. If you will exploit your own family, how will you treat neighbors?
Today, on average, black people are still paid less for the same work, but the pain of inequality spills over to other Americans as well, and indeed it affects the way we Americans view people in other lands.
Martin Luther King's ministry didn't stop at these shores. He spoke out against the war in Vietnam and was vilified by newspapers and magazines. People who supported his work against racism urged him to keep silent lest he damage the cause of civil rights. But it's all tied together.
King saw the war in Vietnam draw money and energy away from the nation's infant anti-poverty programs.
In a speech in New York in 1967, King said, "I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor. ... "
War wasn't only gutting poverty programs; Dr. King realized that it was consuming the sons of the poor.
Recently, Congressman Charles Rangel suggested we bring back the draft so that the sons and daughters of the rich and the powerful would have to take their place on the front lines.
He said that might make the leadership think a little deeper before sending troops off to battle.
I think the congressman mostly wanted to make a point since there is no chance of the draft being brought back, and even if it were reinstated, there would be loopholes. I understand Texas has a particularly fine Air National Guard.
King's concern moved outward and grew broader, from concern about the effect of the war on economic programs, to a concern about American soldiers, to a concern about the Vietnamese people to a concern about our relationships with poor countries around the globe. And finally back to a concern about our very soul.
What do our actions say about our values? The question is still relevant.