What Would Martin Do?

Martin Luther King, Jr., died April 4, 1968. During his life, and even more so after his death by assassination, he became a symbol of the greatest drive forward in human rights in modern history. In a few short years, African-American members of this country went from, in many states, not being able to vote or to eat a meal in a public restaurant, to being acknowledged full citizens by law and on their way to the full acknowledgment in social practice.

It takes a long time for practice to catch up with law, sometimes. But just as often as people do what they believe in, they also tend to believe in what they do. If you coax someone into doing you a favor once, he's more likely to do it again, in order to justify his first action. If you make someone angry enough to do something nasty to you, she's more likely to do it again, in order to justify being mean the first time by convincing herself you deserve such treatment.

So although society is usually playing catch-up with its attempts to legislate its own morality, it does work to some extent. This is perhaps most obvious to those of us who can compare memories of 1960 with today. We have problems, but life is fundamentally different. I just read a science fiction book published in 1969, Jagged Orbit, in which John Brunner predicted the total disintegration of society along racial lines, with individuals buying city-leveling armament to "protect their neighborhoods." We have made enough progress that that scenario, at least, reads as quaintly as a James Bond novel about the menace of the KGB.

But while the divisions between races grow, to some extent, less, other divisions have only grown wider. Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther King was campaigning for economic equality. He was planning a multiracial poor people's march on Washington to demand an end to all forms of discrimination, and propose the funding of a $12-billion "Economic Bill of Rights." That drive faltered when he was cut down by an assassin's bullet and the inner cities of America erupted in riots. In a recently reprinted reminiscence, King's friend John D. Maguire says, "Now, nearly 30 years later, the issue is persistent poverty, which has created a two-tiered society in America that condemns many people to lifelong bondage in an underclass." "Economic oppression" means different things to different people. One political extreme hears the term as the whining excuse of losers in the Darwinian forces of a free market-place. Another political extreme will only be content when humorless gray officials control all wealth and goods and dole them out in strict equality - then we will all be "free."

Those of us actually living in the ignored backwaters of the "booming economy" have more pragmatic definitions of "economic oppression." When you are not allowed to even be in certain areas - parks, sidewalks, in front of business - because you look poor, you feel oppressed. When you can work two jobs, still not be able to afford an apartment, and have to live in a homeless shelter, and you read about Nordstrom getting $23 million in low-income housing funds to build a parking garage, you feel oppressed. When public officials rage on the TV about your $71 a month in foodstamps as if you are personally draining the lifeblood of the country, and nobody says peep about $125 billion in corporate welfare or $170 billion in military waste and fraud, you feel oppressed. Even depressed.

Sometimes it seems that human beings have to have a scapegoat, an outsider. The poor and the powerless are traditional targets when the Scapegoat is needed. But Spot the Scapegoat isn't just an intellectual exercise. Tragedy, violence, and the destruction of human societies result.

This year a group of activists have resurrected the last dream of Martin Luther King. They are beginning to plan a multiracial poor people's march on Washington D.C. on Labor Day, 2000, to demand an end to all forms of discrimination and the funding of an Economic Bill of Rights.

I have a dream. I have a dream that thirty years from now I will read novels about class discrimination and the oppression of the poor, and they will sound as quaint as novels about racial warfare, or the spies of the KGB.

I dream of the day when the human race has to find a new scapegoat.

Homeless Columns ed. by Anitra L. Freeman