Friday, April 4, 2008

Bert Corona and the MLK Legacy

Bert Corona
(Bert Corona - 1968)

Today's 40th anniversay recognition of the day when a great American hero was prematurely taken from us we reflect on how much has been accomplished in changing America and how much has yet to be accomplished. Brother Corona was how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. greeted legendary labor, civil and immigrants' rights organizer and pioneer, Bert Corona, when he accompanied Corky Gonzalez and Reies Tijerina, both legendary Chicano civil rights leaders in their own right, when they visited Dr. King in Washington, D.C. in preparation of the Poor People's Campaign in 1968.

As Bert Corona conveyed the story on various occasions to younger confidants over the years, Dr. King worked very hard, in what came to be the final phase of his work, to broaden the composition and the theme of the civil rights movement and evolve it into a true people's movement for economic rights - what he called the common ground and common place to move America forward. Today we refer to this as inclusive organizing, nothing less than forging strategic alliances between constituencies of commonality.

Dr. King had invited Bert Corona, Corky Gonzalez, Reies Tijerina, and other leaders to Washington to discuss how to reach out to Chicanos, Mexican Americans, Hispanos, or as Corky would declaim, "whatever we call ourselves," in his famous poem, "I Am Joaquin," as part of the Poor People's March and what was projected to develop into a sustained campaign to radically change the country. Dr. King was not referring to tactical allies for one march, but contemplating the possibility of a strategic alliance for a prolonged fight of poor and working class whites, blacks, browns, Native Americans, and Asians.

Corona always spoke fondly about that meeting and how Martin Luther King referred to him and the others with respect and in a collaborative spirit. He shared the experience with reverence and always seemed to bow his head slightly and speak in a lower tone. It was evident that Corona was deeply touched by the encounter, but more by the ugly reality that their collaboration was not realized with the assasination of Reverend King.

We share these two articles with you, one, by Jesse Jackson, and the other, by Martin Luther King III, as we reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


MLK’s Legacy Is Alive and Well

Jesse Jackson
Op-Ed - New York Daily News
April 3, 2008

Friday, we honor the 40th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s martyrdom. King was a unique dreamer who planted a universal vision in all of our minds; an orator who turned words and sounds into works of art and liberation anthems.

Rev. King dreamed, but more critically he marched; he organized; he acted. He turned the race “conversation” into revolutionary legislation that would strike down centuries of slavery and segregation: the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision; the ‘55 court decision validating the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Park’s refusal to sit at the back of the bus. From the marching feet in Selma came the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Down the highway to Montgomery came the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And from the Chicago rallies came the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the last of the monumental civil rights legislation that sprang from King.

I had the privilege of working with King on his last journey, launching Operation Breadbasket and taking the movement north to Chicago. His fateful trip to Memphis in April 1968 was to lead onward to the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington. At the Rev. Jim Lawson’s urging, King agreed that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference must connect with the striking sanitation workers fighting for better working conditions and the right to a union.

We arrived in Memphis on April 3 to make plans for a march scheduled for April 8. In his last public address that evening, given at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, Rev. King not only rallied supporters for the march, but he noted the importance of “withdrawing economic support” as a means of taking protest to the next level.

“As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain,” he said.

Quite ominously Rev. King ended by saying, “I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land…I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Then on April 4, 6:01 p.m., as the shots rang out from across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, King fell to the ground on the balcony.

While much focus is on the metaphorical imagery of the “dream,” the content of King’s journey is found in the focus of his last major project - the Poor People’s Campaign - which King envisioned would be a journey for concrete, measurable racial and economic equality. It would be a new peaceful, nonviolent movement for jobs or an income, comprehensive health care, an end to the war in Vietnam and a transfer of resources to a new war on poverty at home. In essence, establishing a human rights “floor beneath which no American should fall.”

Were he alive today, King would call for an end to the war in Iraq, and to transfer the $1 trillion war expenses to a new war on poverty at home. He would call for enforcement of civil rights and fair housing laws, and comprehensive government assistance to protect homeowners and end the foreclosure crisis. He would press for equal, high quality education and health care for all Americans.

Rev. King would no doubt rejoice in the prospect of the first African-American or woman as President of the democracy he helped to forge, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton conduits through which a better and more mature America is expressing itself.

Today, King would not let anything or anyone “turn us around.” He’d keep on dreaming and organizing to transform inequality into “Equanomics” - race and economic equality in employment, education, empowerment and entrepreneurship for all Americans. He’d show us courage to face down fear, he’d help us work with love for equality and turn anger to peaceful action. That’s the Rev. King I knew, and the one I wish were here with us today.

Jackson is founder and president of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.


Speaking Truth to Poverty

Martin Luther King III
Op-Ed - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
April 3, 2008

It has been 40 years since the last sermon my father gave at the National Cathedral in Washington, when he called upon our nation’s leaders to eradicate poverty once and for all, explaining that, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

Today, as our nation continues to be plagued by a poverty that is inexcusable when coupled with record riches amassed by the wealthy, the challenge that consumed my father toward the end of his life has remained comfortably entrenched within the realm of rhetoric and not action.
I therefore call upon all our presidential candidates to take a vow that, within the first 100 days in office as commander in chief, he or she will appoint a cabinet-level officer whose responsibility will be to make a measurable impact on eradicating poverty and allow more Americans to move up into our middle class.

A poverty cabinet member is necessary today more than ever. Our next president will be taking over a government that faces virtually the exact same poverty rate my father found so appalling back in 1968. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the current poverty rate is just over 12 percent, as it was in 1968, while the number of people living in poverty has grown from 25 million to more than 36 million, including 12 million children. Even worse, a family of four with two children and an annual income of $21,027 is not even considered poor by our government’s reporting standards. Many people have become immune to these statistics, but we cannot wait for another Katrina to truly grasp that America is awash in poverty.

The work of the cabinet officer must transcend the ceremonial. His or her principal focus must be highlighting successful programs working at the local level, developing new, more accurate measurements for poverty, and setting benchmarks for success by which the administration will be judged.

We can look to the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg for developing the Office of Financial Empowerment within the Department of Consumer Affairs of New York City, which utilizes strategic partnerships and innovation to educate, empower and protect low-income New Yorkers. Going far beyond New York’s model, the national poverty office would investigate public policy that could boost income, increase savings, encourage asset building, protect consumers and work to bring about systemic change in the war on poverty. An emphasis would be placed on coordinating with the public, private and civic sectors to develop institution-based and action-oriented solutions while setting measurable benchmarks for success. This isn’t just about speeches. Just as America created a middle class through deliberate action once before, we can take the steps to restore opportunity to all our citizens again.

Finally, the office would develop more accurate measurements for poverty that wouldn’t overlook the family of four barely surviving on $21,000 a year. With real data, the office can generate meaningful reports on the causes and effects of poverty that will raise the profile of poverty as a national issue and highlight successful anti-poverty policies that can be promoted to Congress, the president and the public. In a nation heavily influenced by our market-based principles, we pay attention to what we can count. So it’s time to start counting correctly.

My father spent his life in the trenches of a war that poses a true threat to our peace and security as a nation. He fought the war on poverty with the sanitation workers in Memphis, and he was moved to continue that fight as he witnessed barely clothed children in Marks, Miss., and a mother in Newark, N.J., raising her children in a rat-infested apartment.

Four decades have come and gone, but as I have traveled the country continuing the fight on poverty, I have seen firsthand that the poverty remains the same.

I urge our nation, our citizens, our businesses, our government and our presidential hopefuls to remember my father’s caution in his final sermon: There is no such thing as a conscientious objector in the war on poverty.

Martin Luther King III is an international human rights activist and chairman and CEO of Realizing the Dream Inc.

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