Friday, April 4, 2008

MLK’s Voice … And Unfinished Business For The Voiceless

“Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple. To be a Negro in America is to hope against hope.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Forty years. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, longer than his entire life on earth, but it has.

In some ways, we’ve come a long way as a nation. The campaign I’m working on, and who I was recently elected as delegation chair in our precinct to our state convention (the third level) for is Barack Obama – not only a biracial African-American, but the frontrunner at this late moment for the Democratic nomination as President. With all the self-inflicted damage the GOP has done to itself over these recent years, Democrats (as long as they don’t self-destruct) stand to place him as the first President who is a POC (person of color).

And yet in many ways, the job he started wasn’t finished. Race as a limiting factor has become much less than it was forty years ago. There is still skin-color stereotyping and discrimination in many areas that have traditionally been hard cases, especially in police enforcement and judicial areas as well as areas where snap judgments are relied upon. More problematic are pockets where education is limited and perceptions are parochial, and where fear of “difference” creates automatic suspicion. Truth be told, it’s not only a white on black issue, but a black on white, a brown on black and an every color and visual difference versus every other color and visual difference.

In a microcosm, parts of that mindset bleed over into anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-middle eastern, anti-anything-that-doesn’t-look-typical-America discrimination.

But the most important work, and very specifically the crux of what Dr. King’s legacy was about, has been mostly overlooked and truncated into only being about race – and specifically about the African American. To be sure, that’s what inspired his work: the treatment afforded “coloreds” most especially in the south. His ultimate work, though, was to give voice to the voiceless, to empower the powerless, to provide a sense of hope to those without hope and to fight the poverty of the impoverished of all races and colors – even white.

Classism was the ultimate culprit Dr. King railed against, and only began scratching the surface on when he died. The media’s finally noticed this, along with financial disparities plaguing America. However, they’re a little late to the table.

In the past quarter century, classism has gone unchecked, gone rampant and has been mostly unnoticed. We’ve been a very patient populace in America over the years, but patience has played us all as nothing but losers. Nothing is being addressed where it should. The poor are ever poorer and more are joining their ranks every day. The disempowered are finding power beyond their reach and their ability to address. Hope is nothing more than just a small town in Arkansas these days. And our stories are drowned-out like a whisper in a rock concert. And certainly it’s affected much more than just the African American community.

Originally, even ironically, the candidate carrying forth Dr. King’s message in this Presidential campaign was a white southern male, John Edwards. He was who I was supporting in the early presidential race. In fact, it was a message Edwards saw and used as his pulpit back in his 2004 campaign before acceding to eventual nominee John Kerry’s campaign. Since his departure from the 2008 race, there has been a little of the message coming out from the remaining candidates – most specifically from Obama. But mostly, Edwards got a scant yawn and very little interest this year.

“Today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America - middle-class America - whose needs Washington has long forgotten, another America - narrow-interest America - whose every wish is Washington's command. One America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants, even a Congress and a president.” — presidential candidate, Sen. John Edwards in 2004

In an online interview with Helen Boyd of the My Husband Betty blog, the number problem I foresaw in the transgender community was classism. I’d watched it begin its inroads (most specifically with HRC playing the kingmaking influence) within the trans community in 2003-2004. When I noted that on the interview, I can imagine there was no one thinking that was an issue at all, and they probably think it still doesn’t exist.

It’s been a divisive issue not spoken of within the gay and lesbian community for years. Those who should be telling the story, those who’ve been on the front lines of their movement and were are front-and-center suffering through the disparity are never the ones with the voice. It’s always the opportunity-seeking “professionals” with addiction to spotlights and cameras who’ve never experienced hardship that are the face of their modern “movement.”

As this economy worsens, and as the gap between the haves and have-nots increase, why would folks in the trans community think this will bypass us in the trans community? As John Edwards was making presidential waves, the 2003-2005 period was also I time I, and a number of other trans political activists were going through desperate economic straits. I know extensively about poverty first-hand from that period and before. Still live with the remnants of it.

Even though that sounds like a trans issue, that portion of it wasn’t. It was Bush/Cheney’s “economic recovery.” It’s been spreading throughout the middle class and working its way up the food chain in straight America as well. Virtually everyone has seen hardships – no longer tied simply to race, sexuality, gender identity or religion.

So today, April 4, 2008, as America and perhaps the world stands on the precipice of a possible economic free-fall, and forty years after the voice of MLK was silenced, I feel sad and empty. The work he began got sidetracked into opportunism and avarice for those fortunate few at the top. The polite patience of those without have served only to validate and reaffirm continued and indefinite deferment of the dream. And anyone who tries to address the ills in a similar fashion – not for personal gain, but to right the wrongs – faces a life without a voice, and malignant neglect.

I’m used to neglect and voicelessness. Heck, it’s something we kids lived with growing up – “deal with it, and deal with it silently.” But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that repression can only last so long. Like anything, it has limits. Once you reach that threshold – that tipping point – all bets are off, the game changes and everything’s in play. The costs of neglectfulness are much higher than offering opportunity in the first place. For an example, look at the civil rights-era riots.

Regardless of whether you look at it from a race-based perspective, from a religious perspective, or from a GLBT or even a straight perspective, equality never came, and the job MLK started was never finished. Worse, with the Gordon Gekko-style greed-is-good mentality in America, we’re much further behind than in 1968. The light of hope and opportunity are horrible things to lose, but once they’re gone you create desperation in that darkness. That light is rapidly disappearing for most of us.

Today both of the democratic candidates addressed the issues of ending poverty and disparity. We pray it’s more than rhetoric. Until we see the silenced speak and the playing field of opportunity leveled, until we see hope and dreams of sharing power reach its way to the lightless corners of this darkened world, then a prayer is about all we have.

Here’s a prayer to see that Martin Luther King Jr’s dream will one day be fulfilled.

“I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering and our focus on our own selfish short-term needs. I think he would be appalled, actually.” — presidential candidate John Edwards in 2007.

"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black." — Robert F. Kennedy, announcing the death on the night that MLK was murdered.

“America owes a debt of justice, which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness -- justice.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

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