Toward the end of his life, MLK's focus began to shift from ensuring racial equality to bridging the economic divide between the rich and poor
The timing was coincidental enough to be eerie. But just as crowds gathered in Washington, D.C. last Friday to dedicate the site for a new memorial on the Mall to Martin Luther King, Jr., I stumbled across the April, 19, 1968 issue of Life magazine among a mountain of papers, books and magazines I was clearing out of my parents' house in New York. It was one of only two issues of Life magazine my mother had kept. But on the cover was a close-up of Coretta Scott King, "beautiful and veiled in grief," as the writer Gordon Parks described her, at the funeral of her husband. And the coverage inside talked not only of Martin Luther King' Jr.s death and its aftermath, but also about the legacy and work he was leaving behind him.
There was, of course, discussion of the work he focused on in his "I Have A Dream" speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. (The public dedication of the new Memorial was originally scheduled for yesterday, the 48th anniversary of that speech, but Hurricane Irene forced organizers to postpone it.) But by 1968, both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had been passed, and King's focus was shifting from the basic cause of social and political equality for black people to the broader issue of economic equality -- for all poor people, regardless of race.
In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here, King noted that there were twice as many white poor as black poor people in the United States. "Therefore," he wrote, "I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination." Instead, he argued for better jobs, wages, housing, and education for all people suffering in poverty.
The Life editors also spoke of the "poor people's campaign" King was planning when he died. And In an article about a speech Coretta Scott King had given in his place, the day before his funeral service, Life quoted her as saying about her late husband,
He was concerned about the least of these (workers)... We are concerned about not only the Negro poor, but the poor all over America and all over the world. Every man deserves a right to a job or an income so that he can pursue liberty, life, and happiness. Our great nation, as he often said, has the resources, but his question was: "Do we have the will?" Somehow I hope in this resurrection experience the will will be created within the hearts and minds, and the souls and the spirits of those who have the power to make these changes come about.
Forty-three years later, with an African-American president sitting in the White House, it's easy enough to argue that significant progress has been made on the front of racial equality. But what of King's other dream -- of easing the burdens of the poor in a more equitable economic society?
In 1968, roughly 12-13 percent of the country was living below the poverty level. Today, that number is virtually unchanged. What's more, the disparity in income between the richest and poorest Americans has increased over the past decades. A 2010 Slate series on income inequality noted that in 1915, the richest 1 percent of Americans possessed 15-18 percent of the nation's income, and that today, that number has risen to 24 percent. And a few months ago, a PBS News Hour piece headlined "Income Inequality Gap Widens Among U.S. Communities Over 30 Years" looked more closely at the growing disparity of income by area in America.
Accompanying those hard numbers is an arguable hardening of attitude toward those less well off in the country. Perhaps we all feel closer to the edge than we did in the 1960s, and therefore less inclined to even the tables. But the sense of people taking care of themselves, as opposed to their neighbors, is far stronger today than it was when King was assassinated. It's hard to imagine today's Congress passing the Social Security Act of 1965, which raised Americans' taxes in order to make both Medicare and Medicaid possible.
The U.S. still has astounding financial resources. But the "will" Coretta Scott King talked about in that April, 1968 Life article still seems to elude us. Would King himself have been able to make a difference on that front, if he had lived? It's hard to say. But reading through that issue of Life, I was reminded again of the power Dr. King possessed to calmly but resolutely tweak the nation's conscience.
"King," the Life editors wrote, "insisted on the enlargement of the American dream of equality. Steady enlargement is the way it has always been kept alive... He bade white Americans face their simple duty of living up to their own best traditions in a context they had not been accustomed to... He asked to be remembered as a 'drum major for justice... for peace ... for righteousness.' Those old-fashioned abstractions have the force of continuity with what Americans have stood for, and often fought for, since their beginning. King insisted on non-violent means because he took the Sermon on the Mount seriously. But he attracted and defied violence because he took America seriously, and that can be a daring and unpopular thing to do."
King never tried to be a politician, necessarily mired in the messy, compromising bogs of campaigning or governance. His chosen role, instead, was to make it difficult for politicians to ignore his voice; a voice that argued convincingly for what was right; for what was just; and for how we needed to be, and could be, better. Not better off, but better members of the human race.
Would King's voice have made a difference in the economic inequality of today, or the tone of the debates raging over health care, taxes, and who should bear the burden for what? It's hard to say. But as the site for his memorial is dedicated in Washington, it's worth pondering his other dream... what he would have made of the arguments being waged over it today, and whether he would have thought us closer to, or further from, our better selves than we were the day he died.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
New data shows that students whose parents make less money pursue more “useful” subjects, such as math or physics.
In 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he laid out his plans for what his children and grandchildren would devote their lives to. Having himself taken the time to master “Politicks and War,” two revolutionary necessities, Adams hoped his children would go into disciplines that promoted nation-building, such as “mathematicks,” “navigation,” and “commerce.” His plan was that in turn, those practical subjects would give his children’s children room “to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”
Two-hundred and thirty-five years later, this progression—“from warriors to dilettantes,” in the words of the literary scholar Geoffrey Galt Harpham—plays out much as Adams hoped it would: Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.
Most adults can’t remember much of what happened to them before age 3 or so. What happens to the memories formed in those earliest years?
My first memory is of the day my brother was born: November 14, 1991. I can remember my father driving my grandparents and me over to the hospital in Highland Park, Illinois, that night to see my newborn brother. I can remember being taken to my mother’s hospital room, and going to gaze upon my only sibling in his bedside cot. But mostly, I remember what was on the television. It was the final two minutes of a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. I can even remember the precise story: “Percy Takes the Plunge,” which feels appropriate, given that I too was about to recklessly throw myself into the adventure of being a big brother.
In sentimental moments, I’m tempted to say my brother’s birth is my first memory because it was the first thing in my life worth remembering. There could be a sliver of truth to that: Research into the formation and retention of our earliest memories suggests that people’s memories often begin with significant personal events, and the birth of a sibling is a textbook example. But it was also good timing. Most people’s first memories date to when they were about 3.5 years old, and that was my age, almost to the day, when my brother was born.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
The singer’s violent revenge fantasy was intended to provoke outrage, and to get people to talk about her. It succeeds on both counts.
Of all the scandalized reactions to Rihanna’s music video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” my favorite comes, as is not surprising for this sort of thing, from the Daily Mail. Labelling herself in the headline as a “concerned parent” (a term to transport one to the days of Tipper Gore’s crusade against lyrics if there ever was one), Sarah Vine opens her column by talking at length about how so very, very reluctant she was to watch Rihanna’s new clip. Then she basically goes frame-by-frame through the video, recounting her horror at what unfolds. “By the time it had finished, I wondered whether I ought not to report [Rihanna] to the police,” Vine writes. “Charges: pornography, incitement to violence, racial hatred.”
Gentrification is pushing long-term residents out of urban neighborhoods. Can collective land ownership keep prices down permanently?
AUSTIN, Tex.—Not long ago, inner cities were riddled with crime and blight and affluent white residents high-tailed it to the suburbs, seeking better schools, safer streets, and, in some cases, fewer minority neighbors.
But today, as affluent white residents return to center cities, people who have lived there for years are finding they can’t afford to stay.
Take the case of the capital city of Texas, where parts of East Austin, right next to downtown, are in the process of becoming whiter, and hip restaurants, coffee shops, and even a barcatering to bicyclists are opening. Much of Austin’s minority population, meanwhile, is priced out, and so they’re moving to far-out suburbs such as Pflugerville and Round Rock, where rents are affordable and commutes are long.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The religious scholar from the viral Fox News interview explains how Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov taught him the difference between faith and religion.
By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
By now, millions of people have watched FOX news host Lauren Green’s grilling of writer Reza Aslan. Last week, the clip of the interview made the Internet flare up—mostly in outcry that a news anchor would so flagrantly suggest that Muslim thinkers are more biased and agenda-driven than other (presumably white, Christian) talking heads.
Though Green’s questions received scorn, media reaction largely avoided the more substantive questions brought up by the interview and Aslan’s new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. And that’s too bad. These are lines of inquiry worth tracing: What does Jesus stand for, and who gets to decide? Who has the authority to determine what a figure of massive religious and cultural importance really “means”?
The decisions—about Iraq, about Korea, about fighting terrorism—that confrontthis U.S. President may turn out to be as momentous as any an American leader has faced in decades. What capacities does President Bush bring to his decision-making? What limitations hamper his judgment? The author, a journalist and a historian, speaks with people close to the President and probes his private life and public career. Bush is, he concludes, focused, quick to make decisions, persevering, a good judge of character, and yes, "smart enough" to be an effective President. The unknown quantity is imagination—the imagination to foresee consequences, the imagination to be a wartime President
The powers of the presidency have changed almost beyond recognition since the infancy of the office, when foreign relations were handled by a dozen clerks and diplomats, the armed forces consisted of several thousand soldiers and sailors, and the President himself took months-long summer vacations from the yellow-fever-ravaged capital of Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.
One pattern of presidential decision-making was established early on, however. The process is determined not by the office but by who holds it. The first President, George Washington, a veteran officer and a lifelong performer, led from the front; his decisions, clear and direct, were announced—if not made—in public. Thomas Jefferson, the third President, had a different style; a century and a half before the political scientist Fred I. Greenstein coined the phrase "hidden-hand presidency" to describe Dwight D. Eisenhower's time in office, Jefferson operated behind a screen of reticence, dinner-table charm, and the feints of congressional front men. The first Presidents also pioneered different ways of taking advice before making decisions. Washington weighed the counsel of often quarrelsome advisers, chiefly Jefferson, his Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, his Treasury Secretary; John Adams, the second President, dealt with a Cabinet that was positively mutinous by firing half its members in his last year in office. In this area, too, Jefferson introduced a new model: the men around him all sang from the same page. His most important advisers—James Madison, at the State Department, and Albert Gallatin, at the Treasury—had worked with him and each other for years, and harmonized in ideology and temperament.