Was Martin Luther King, Jr. a President?

Last week Levon ran into the kitchen and asked, “Was Martin Luther King, Jr. a president?”  Levon is five.  He knows MLK was an important leader in our nation’s history, so it seems reasonable in his mind that someone that important was president.

Until recently the fact that Presidents Day fell during Black History Month was either ironic or irrelevant.  But now, in the minds of children that never knew a world before we had a black president, perhaps this coincidence seems appropriate.

Presidential PuzzleIn honor of Presidents Day, Paxton and Levon asked questions like, “How many presidents have been shot?” and “When are the presidents’ birthdays?”  All questions easily answered with a quick Google search.  They also asked, “Why can’t Dada be president?…Why can’t you be president?…”  That last question was followed with this observation, “There haven’t been too many women presidents.”  I told them we may soon have a woman president.  Which lead to a brief discussion of Hillary Clinton.  Still my mind is drawn back to Levon’s question about MLK.

For Presidents Day we again completed the jigsaw puzzle depicting all the US Presidents.  Maybe this time Pax and Levon will internalize the fact that all 43 faces preceding Barack Obama were white.  (Also, as just clarified, all male.)

Recently I’ve had a chance to reflect on Ossining’s events honoring the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.  My brother Barrett Hawes is an editor, and he just completed this short video of highlights that I asked him to create.  Recognizing local voices discussing civil rights—what a perfect way to celebrate Black History Month.

On the second night of events honoring the historic march, the Ossining Documentary & Discussion Series hosted a screening of Brother Outsider, a film about Bayard Rustin, the march’s organizer.  Panelists Walter Naegle and Denis Parker were excellent.  Walter Naegle was Bayard Rustin’s partner and recently accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Rustin’s behalf.  Denis Parker is the director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program and he lives in Ossining.Panelists August

The speakers and panelists that participated in the two days of events honoring the March on Washington demonstrate the wealth of intellectual and impassioned people who live in Ossining.  I felt great pride when my brother watched the event footage and was thoroughly impressed by the number of interesting and charismatic voices in our community.  Barrett spends much of his work day trying to make celebrities and reality tv “stars” seem interesting and charismatic.  For him it was refreshing to have the challenge instead be to select only highlights from great material.

There are many heroes to celebrate during Black History Month.  Since I’ve spent a good part of the last year reading MLK’s work, I will end a bit of wisdom from him.  Like all his statements, it holds true today.  And it is one of the biting quotes that dispels the softer gentler version of King that is often portrayed.

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

Honoring the March Continues Tonight

BROTHER OUTSIDER DVD coverTonight we continue our community’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington with a screening of Brother Outsider.  Please visit the Ossining Documentary & Discussion Series website (www.OssiningDocumentarties.org) for details about the impressive panelists who will help us explore more about Bayard Rustin, the latest recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and organizer of the historic march.  We look forward to seeing you at the Ossining Library’s Budarz Theater at 6:30 tonight!

Last night’s event honoring the landmark civil rights event had a great turnout, passionate participants, and an enthusiastic audience.  We had moved the venue from the beautiful waterfront to the community center because rain had been predicted to continue on and off throughout the night.  In hindsight, we might have gotten wet while setting up and people’s blankets would have been damp, but the rain ending up being done in time for the event.   Darn.  But thanks to social media, and help from friends, we were able to get the word out on the new location and the gym at the Caputo Center was full.  Helping to organize this event gave me an opportunity to meet and work with so many people in our community, and there are so many people to thank.  For now, here are a few pics…

Vance Gilbert was funny, engaging, and so talented as our special musical guest.
Vance Gilbert was funny, engaging, and so talented as our special musical guest.
The Star of Bethlehem Choir opened the program with two rousing selections.
The Star of Bethlehem Choir opened the program with two rousing selections.
It was a delight meeting Velda Lowery, Pastor of Greater Love AME Zion Church who offered the benediction for the opening program.
It was a delight meeting Velda Lowery, Pastor of Greater Love AME Zion Church who offered the benediction for the opening program.

GOTV captured the whole event on video which should be available to watch soon.  Meanwhile, a couple of folks that weren’t able to attend last night’s program asked to read my remarks.  I’ve included them below.

My sons are 5 and 6 years old.  They have only ever known a world where their president is Black, their mayor is gay, and their classmates are teaching them to be bilingual.  Their hearts and minds are more open to “judging others by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin” than any generation before them.  So when will that translate to economic justice?

Fifty years ago when Martin Luther King gave his I Have Dream Speech the unemployment rate for Black people was twice the rate for whites.  It still is.  Thankfully it can no longer be said that people of color live “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”  There is an African American middle class today that did not exist half a century ago. 

And yet the disparity between rich and poor is greater than it has been in a hundred years, and it is growing.  And people of color continue to disproportionately be poor.

Before Congress left for their summer break, they passed a Farm Bill that for the first time did not include funding food stamps.  Many Republicans in Congress felt that food stamp spending had grown too large.  I agree.  I believe the solution is to pay workers a living wage.

This summer we’ve seen fast food and Walmart workers go on strike.  Tomorrow fast food workers across the country are striking to demand $15/hr and the right to unionize without retaliation. (lowpayisnotok.org).

If the tea party Republicans have their way and continue to block food stamps, they may be in for a rude awakening.  If the millions of people who are just barely getting by because of food stamps suddenly don’t even have food in their bellies, the frequency and size of these strikes might start to grow.  People who have nothing to eat, have nothing to lose.

Food stamps are not welfare for the poor.  Food stamps are welfare for corporations.  Food stamps enable fast food restaurants and Walmart to pay workers less than a living wage.  Food stamps enable Nestle and Kraft to sell poor quality food to poor people using cheap ingredients subsidized by taxpayer dollars thanks to legislation written by Monsanto.  Food stamps enable JPMorgan to earn billions of dollars as the largest processor of food stamps in the country.

We can have an in-depth discussion about the degrees of privilege we experience because of our color, where we grew up, and who are parents are.  There are very real differences.  But I suggest, as important as that discussion may be, it is not the primary reason that the extremely rich are growing richer and one third of people in our country are at or near poverty.

While we are arguing amongst ourselves, corporations are writing our laws and deciding what news we will watch and read.  Many of us take the easy road of hatred and blame; the one laid out for us by mainstream media; the one that tells us if a McDonald’s worker gets paid a living wage we won’t be able to afford a Big Mac.  Why is it that the freehand of the market can only be trusted when corporations want deregulation?  Don’t Big Macs always cost exactly as much as McDonald’s number crunching geniuses have figured out the market will bear?

Jim Crowe laws would never have taken hold if plantation owners hadn’t been able to convince poor white people that they had more in common with rich white people than poor black people.  What if instead, poor people of every color had recognized that they shared more with each other than any of them did with rich plantation owners?  Now it is time for individual people to unite.  Corporations are not people.  We are the people.  This nation is by us, for us and of us.

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