I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, he penned his response to a letter from some clergymen who objected to his demands. He had led a peaceful march for freedom, but some objected, including some local church leaders. Those clergymen wrote, in part:
We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
Dr. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to their call to be “patient.” It is, in my opinion, must reading for any American who cares about our long quest for freedom for all people. Here are some key excerpts from Dr. King’s response:
16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms…
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.
If we should have learned anything about the centuries long quest for freedom, it should be this: people (peoples) who don’t have freedom are seldom given it freely. They have to take it. Our very Declaration of Independence reminds us of this:
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
Whatever else we celebrate today, we celebrate this: that people longing to be free have risen up, time and again, and asked for what is their “constitutional and God given rights.” And any attempt to withhold such rights, such freedom, such freedoms, from any people (peoples) is downright un-American.
Enjoy your freedom. Remember the long struggles that got us here. And ask, who is deprived of this freedom today? And, what can we do to speed up the process for them? For, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Happy 4th of July.
An interesting note: this is a rare photograph of Dr. King dressed not in a suit and tie. Taylor Branch chronicled Dr. King’s decision to go to jail, and described the shocked look on the faces of his friends as he stepped out of his bedroom in “dungarees and a work shirt.” Ir’s been years since I read this, but I’m pretty sure it was in Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch. As his friends debated the wisdom of Dr. King himself participating in the demonstration and thus being arrested, Dr. King stepped out in attire that signaled “I’m ready to go to jail.” The adds to the poignancy of this line from his “I Have A Dream “ speech, delivered some four months after this arrest:
“With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
For practically every family, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause.
If problems are interlocking, then so must solutions be. A job alone is not enough. Medical insurance alone is not enough. Good housing alone is not enough. Reliable transportation, careful family budgeting, effective parenting, effective schooling are not enough when each is achieved in isolation from the rest. There is no single variable that can be altered to help working people move away from the edge of poverty. Only where the full array of factors is attacked can America fulfill its promise.
The first step is to see the problems, and the first problem is the failure to see the people.
David Shipler: The Working Poor (Invisible in America)
How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed – On (Not) Getting By in America
News item: Non college graudates are seeing their job opportunites completely disappear. From Do You Have a Job? by Daniel E. Slotnik:
For many young people in America, steady work is far from guaranteed. A new study shows that only one of six high school graduates is now employed full time, and although 73 percent think they will need more education, only half say they will enroll. Are you now employed? What jobs have you had in the past? Do you think you could find work after high school, if you choose not to attend college?
In her article “More Young Americans Out of High School Are Also Out of Work,” Catherine Rampell writes:
Whatever the sob stories about recent college graduates spinning their wheels as baristas or clerks, the situation for their less-educated peers is far worse, according to a report from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University scheduled to be released on Wednesday.
Today is Urban Engagement Book Club day. Twice a month, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with social justice or poverty at this event hosted by CitySquare. This is one part of a multi-part life I am living. On one day, I present a synopsis of a best selling and challenging business book. On the next day, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with some aspect of human struggle, even human misery – books on social justice and poverty. (I also do some presentation skills training; some keynote speaking, and a few other kinds of corporate-training-like activities). I like everything that I do, and believe it is all useful to the folks that I interact with regularly. I really do want to help people get “better” at what they do.
But it is the social justice part of my schedule that probably wins the “what matters most to you?” top spot. I care about these issues deeply. I’ve read too many books; I’ve read Isaiah and Amos from the Bible. Caring about the neediest among us really is a big human deal. To fail to do so makes us a little less human.
Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
These words come from Amos 5, and here are a few of the other words that precede that famous “climax” in the chapter:
You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts…
Seek good, not evil.
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.
Caring for the poor; helping the cause of the poor; seeking and providing justice. These may not be needed all that much by those with great means. But as for the neediest… these matter a great deal. And the neediest among us seems to be a growing group at the moment.
Today’s book at the Urban Engagement Book Club is Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter. This is a book about a specific injustice, the “exploitation” of black people in Chicago. But that story has been replicated in city after city. This may be the key quote in the book:
When a seller in the black market demands exorbitant prices and onerous sales terms relative to the terms and prices available to white citizens for comparable housing, it cannot be stated that a dollar in the hands of a black man will purchase the same thing as a dollar in the hands of a white man.
The book is really about how people with means find ways to make a lot of money – a lot of money — off of black people without the same level of means. It is a story overflowing with racism. But there is a warning in here for all folks.
I fear that we are in for much more of this kind of exploitation. People with inadequate means is a growing demographic. High school graduates (and those who did not graduate from high school – some 23-27% of all high school students) are simply unable to find work (see the news item above). The situation is going to be increasingly dire. And this book chronicles just how adept some folks are at making a lot of money off of the exploitation of the poor. The poor black people were the victims in Chicago. And such racially charged abuse is still present in far too many places. But the plight of all types of people without adequate means is a story that I think we need to know, and give some serious thought to.
May I make a suggestion? As we read business books, and as we think about improving our own business, and getting ahead financially – let’s not forget the needy among us. And not just with an occasional charitable gift. Let’s give this issue some real attention. Consider reading an occasional book that deals with such social justice issues. (Start with the Shipler book, The Working Poor. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and this book is honest, thorough, well-written).
Could anything help our country more than for all of us to set our minds to some solutions – to help create a better set of work possibilities for those now in such need, those without that college education to rely on?
It may be that the most patriotic thing any of us can do right now is to help the under-skilled and undereducated find work.