Tuesday, January 01, 2008
From The Chicago Sun-Times…
The Rev. King’s message still leads us toward true justice
By JESSE JACKSON
A new year beckons. A fresh start. A new direction. After the calamities of the past months -- from Iraq to the mortgage crisis, from Katrina’s stain to our prisons’ shame -- we take hope from the new day. In 2008, we will elect a new president and a new Congress. Hope cometh in the morning.
This year also marks the 40th year after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. King’s words will be heard in commemorations from Shanghai to Soweto.
Why is he so honored? He held no political office. He amassed no great financial wealth. He led neither military forces nor global corporations. In his life, he was arrested, reviled, denounced and investigated. He disrupted not simply the segregationists such as Bull Connor but also the liberals such as Kennedy and Johnson.
We remember King because he helped to lead a great movement. His armies were committed but unarmed, engaged but dedicated to nonviolence. King’s greatness came from his faith: “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” His faith in the Maker gave him immense hope for the better angels of God’s creation.
King understood that great leaders do not forge change, that oppressors, even the most enlightened of them, do not give the oppressed their freedom. Only people in motion can force real change. The oppressed must demand their freedom, struggle for it, sweat for it, sacrifice for it -- and force the oppressor to react.
King labored during the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson. Kennedy’s election in 1960 sparked great anticipation. But Kennedy’s grace and Johnson’s forceful brilliance were not enough to drive real change. Conservatives opposed change forcefully. Liberals wanted change, but in all deliberate speed, slowly, without disruption. King was a liberator, not a liberal; he understood the “fierce urgency of now.”
If you try to start a fire with green wood by lighting paper on top of it, you’ll get a small flame and some smoke, but the fire won’t catch. Fires grow hot only when built from the bottom up, with the match igniting the dry kindling beneath the dense logs. King understood that. Kennedy and Johnson might provide light at the top, but change would come only if the movement he helped lead could ignite the kindling at the bottom.
The civil rights movement pushed Kennedy and Johnson to go further and faster than they had ever imagined -- the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the end of legal apartheid. But King understood that equal opportunity was not enough: “Despite new laws, little has changed. … The Negro is still the poorest American -- walled in by color and poverty. The law pronounces him equal -- abstractly -- but his conditions of life are still far from equal.”
So he kept extending the argument. In his final months, he was organizing a poor people’s campaign, bringing people together across lines of race, region and religion, to march on Washington for basic economic rights. As part of this struggle, he went to Memphis to march with sanitation workers striking for a decent wage. King gave his life in the struggle to empower working people -- an agenda even more pressing in this day.
Now, we feel the same anticipation. Change is coming. But let us remember what King taught us. Change will come only if it is built from the bottom up, only when people of conscience join those in need and mobilize to drive that change. That is the great hope for the New Year. Happy New Year, everybody.