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.
If the president and his aides will tell easily disproven falsehoods about crowd sizes and speeches, what else will they be willing to dissemble about?
One of the many things that is remarkable about the Trump administration is its devotion, even in its first days, to a particular variety of pointless falsehood.
Mendacity among politicians and the spokespeople hired to spin for them runs across eras and aisles, though it is true that some are more honest than others, and Donald Trump was a historically dishonest presidential candidate. But the Trump administration has displayed a commitment to needlessly lying that is confounding to even the most cynical observers of American politics.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Popular demonstrations can bring change and topple governments. They can also spark retaliation from those in power.
The signs were so clever.
“We shall overcomb.”
“Viva la vulva.”
“I MAKE THE BEST SIGNS I REALLY DO EVERYONE SAYS SO THEY’RE TERRIFIC.”
Someone even made a papier-mâché vagina dentata.
The people were so cheerful and happy to be with one another, forgetting the cold and enjoying what often seemed less like a protest and more like a block party. There were families there, with grandmas in wheelchairs and babies in strollers. They were ecstatic and in disbelief at the number of people. TheWashington Post reported that the organizers put the attendance at up to half a million. They had hoped for less than half that.
It was surreal how similar this all felt, and my Russian friends on social media confirmed it: “Totally Bolotnaya,” one of them wrote. Bolotnaya is the square in the center of Moscow, right across the river from the Kremlin, where on December 10, 2011 around 50,000 people came out to protest fraudulent parliamentary elections. They had expected 3,000 and were stunned by their success. It was cold and gray that day, too, and the feeling of being in that joyous crowd was unforgettable, which is why I remembered it so vividly today. It is the giddiness of watching people vent their political frustrations with a sense of humor and good cheer, and the euphoria of observing people discover that they are not alone, that there are thousands and thousands of people just like them.
The new president’s first actions in office suggest his style from the trail isn’t going away soon.
Inaugurations are America’s modern equivalents of Roman triumphs. Flanked by military and police vehicles, clad in the pomp of tradition, presidents of the United States take their solemn oaths and parade between the classical facades and colonnades lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Crowds of thousands—sometimes millions—of citizens look on. It is meant to be a celebration of the nation in all her stately, martial honor, and of the vir triumphalis who has claimed the status of its moral leader and commander-in-chief. But inauguration is also a transition, not only between presidents, but from the combat of the campaign to the peacetime of governance.
For President Donald Trump, however, that transition has not yet taken place. On Inauguration Day, Trump did not take off the laurel wreath and transform into a governor, but rather extended his fiery campaign. The earliest hours of his presidency suggest that, dogged by unprecedented public disapproval, confronting questions of legitimacy, relying on a base fueled by partisan conflict, and facing extensive grassroots opposition, Trump’s campaign will be indefinite.
In his first official White House briefing, Sean Spicer blasted journalists for “deliberately false reporting,” and made categorical claims about crowd-size at odds with the available evidence.
In his first appearance in the White House briefing room since President Trump’s inauguration, Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivered an indignant statement Saturday night condemning the media’s coverage of the inauguration crowd size, and accusing the press of “deliberately false reporting.”
Standing next to a video screen that showed the crowd from President Trump’s vantage point, Spicer insisted that media outlets had “intentionally framed” their photographs to minimize its size. After attacking journalists for sharing unofficial crowd-size estimates—“no one had numbers,” he said—he proceeded to offer a categorical claim of his own. “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” he said, visibly outraged. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.
In The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz tells a story about a man who ventures out in the immediate aftermath of the fall of a regime. Papers full of state secrets lie in the streets, their knowledge less important for the moment than that of where to find something to eat. A little boy plays in a bombed-out street, whistling a song about the leader. “The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.”
When authoritarians fall from power, even if they are secretly mourned, they must be publicly forgotten. Yet they remain as traces within the bodies of their people. The muscle memory to salute, to sing their songs, to fear their wrath, can be hard to shake. My years of studying Mussolini and his two-decade long regime have taught me not to underestimate the individual and collective work of disentanglement that comes with the ruler’s fall from power.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
In its first episode of the new administration, the NBC sketch show skewered Vladimir Putin, Kellyanne Conway, and the “lower-case KKK.”
Donald Trump didn’t make an appearance on the first Saturday Night Live of his presidency, at least not in the guise of his TV alter ego, Alec Baldwin’s pouting, preening impersonation. But Trump’s presence dominated the show, from the cold open featuring Beck Bennett as a joyful Vladimir Putin to a video skit in which Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway sang a musical tribute to her newfound fame. This much was clear: The NBC sketch show has no intention of easing up on the new commander-in-chief, and at times seemed to actively position itself as a force of resistance.
SNL’s determination to keep being a thorn in the side of the 45th president, who’s complained on Twitter that its portrayal of him is a “complete hit job,” was crystallized in the opening monologue of the January 21st episode, delivered by the comedian and first-time host Aziz Ansari. For almost nine minutes, Ansari pondered the new president (“He’s probably at home right now watching a brown guy make fun of him”), Islamophobia in the media, and the alt-right, which he dubbed the “lower-case KKK.”
Images of today’s marches in Washington, New York, Denver, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and from other cities in England, Ghana, France, Canada, Serbia, Australia, Kenya, Germany, India, and many more.
In Washington, DC, today, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets in a demonstration called the Women’s March on DC, while even more marched in cities across the United States and around the world, one day after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Larger-than-expected crowds of women and their allies raised their voices against the new administration, and in support of women's rights, health issues, equality, diversity and inclusion. Below are images of today’s marches in Washington, New York, Denver, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and from other cities in England, Ghana, France, Canada, Serbia, Australia, Kenya, Germany, India, and many more.
Most presidents view inaugural addresses as a rare opportunity to appeal beyond “the base.” This was base-only.
For my sins, I have read every U.S. presidential inaugural address ever given, and played a small part in writing one of them—Jimmy Carter’s, delivered 40 years ago today.
The first one I remember hearing, John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, I saw on a fuzzy black-and-white TV from my 7th-grade American history classroom in California. The arctic conditions that day in Washington practically radiated through the TV screen. I remember seeing the revered 87-year-old poet Robert Frost hunch against the wind and squint in the low-sun glare as he tried to read the special inaugural ode he had composed. Then Richard Nixon, just defeated by Kennedy in a hair’s-breadth race, reached across to block the glare with his top hat. Frost waved him off and began reciting from memory one of his best-known poems, “The Gift Outright.” [Update: Other images suggest it could have been VP Lyndon Johnson who was offering Frost the hat. I didn’t really notice at the time; whoever it was, the lasting image was of Frost’s struggling with his script and then beginning to recite.]