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The real legacy of MLK: Confronting poverty, racism and war

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Jack O'Dell. Source: http://1963hopeandhostility.com/

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. Of all the commemorations and activities, among the most interesting and significant are those relating to Occupy Wall Street. The official histories do not adequately explain the extent to which King had taken up the struggle of poor and working people, his attempts to bring together a mass movement for racial and economic justice. Closely related to that was King's increasingly outspoken opposition to the brutal U.S. war against Vietnam.

Here in Vancouver, we are very fortunate to have a veteran of the civil rights movement, Jack O'Dell. Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1923, he was a colleague of Dr. King's in the movements of the 1950s and '60s. In the months leading up to the August 1963 March on Washington, he was a victim of an intense campaign of red-baiting by the U.S. government. In the decades following his collaboration with King, O'Dell continued with lifelong work in the labour, civil rights and peace movements. Jack O'Dell retired to Vancouver, where he lives with his wife Jane Power.

I interviewed Jack on the new W2 Morning Radio Project today on Vancouver's Coop Radio (102.7FM), part of a regular segment I've started contributing to the show, focusing primarily on issues of war and peace. Here's a slightly abbreviated transcript of O'Dell's thoughts on the legacy of Martin Luther King, as it pertains to today's movements for justice.

We started off with a discussion of the connections between racial and economic justice, and the history of movements that "occupy."

I think Dr. King's emphasis was on confronting corporate greed, in other words the whole situation of the poor -- poverty, racism and war. He had a vision that we could transform America, because the struggle for peace and justice were at the very foundations of our society.

The Occupy movement has tapped into a great sense that is abroad today, which is that people are feeling quite insecure with the losses of jobs, and the general pressure in the economy which has practically collapsed in some areas. In certain basic industries, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost. There's the health-care situation, with layoffs people can't keep their premiums up. There's the housing crisis. The Occupy movement, therefore, when they call themselves "Occupy the Dream," it's a great logo, it implies an activism that people can identify with and participate in. The 99 per cent is a figure of speech that allows people to sense in a moment how many people are potentially affected by this economic collapse, and so it's easy for a person to identify with that.

I think what is missing is the concreteness that the civil rights movement offered. When we wanted segregation ended we occupied the lunch counters. When we wanted to be hired we put a picket line around stores that didn't hire blacks, or we would have a black Christmas -- that is going down to the store and you don't buy anything. We would occupy the stores, sing freedom songs. So there has to be an active energy that accompanies the slogans. Occupy, you know, that goes back a long way. When there was mass unemployment during the Great Depression -- I was born in Detroit -- workers went down and occupied the plants, and stayed there. Now, of course, physically in many areas the plants are gone. The point is you have to have a concrete expression of what this Occupation stands for so that people can relate to it in more than an abstraction.

On the relevance of King's anti-war politics

We have just come through a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what must be underscored, in the case of Iraq, is that the government that took us into the war has admitted that the reasons they gave us for that war have evaporated. In other words, the weapons weren't there and they weren't associated with Al-Qaeda. And yet we have spent a couple of trillions of dollars prosecuting that war. The last military budget they just passed the other day was six hundred and eighty some odd billion dollars.

I think one of the big problems, coming out of World War II, was that people had the memory that war meant jobs… people were hired in the so-called defence industry. Now we were defending ourselves in World War II, but they kept that word "defence" going, and people participated in continuing to build up the military. We spend more money than all the other countries combined on the military today…

So whenever we get in an economic crisis people look to the military, as much as any other area of the economy, to provide jobs. I think that's one of the difficulties in the situation we have today. We have to recognize that being employed destroying other countries is a very criminal act, and our nation should be too proud to associate with that.

On the legacy of King and the civil rights movement

Dr. King, when he was asked in 1958 -- just after he had that incident where he was stabbed in New York -- what he hoped his movement would achieve, he said, "We hope to achieve a nation at peace with itself, at peace with its own conscience." And the whole civil-rights movement rested upon that premise. We were tired of the long, drawn out, hypocritical way of dealing with some basic issues of human rights. And so we found the non-violent forms of protesting that, and our hopes were that we would sufficiently arose the nation's conscience, so that they would take action and we would be at peace.

We can't be at peace with our conscience in the present situation. The economic crisis has grown out of our false choices in relation to war. When we came out of the Vietnam War, the sense was that maybe we would never make a mistake like that again. But we see that a new momentum was created, and we can count on two hands the number of countries we have invaded without any real justification since Vietnam. So this distortion of our historic values has to be addressed in this generation.

We have hope, the same hope that [King] expressed, that the nation will be at peace with its conscience if it takes a different direction. But the movement has to create that direction. It is not up to the government, really. It is we who feel the pangs and take responsibility for the preservation and expansion of our democracy who must take responsibility for this moment in history. And that has to do with what you're talking about, the Occupy movement and all other activities that are consistent with having a robust democracy.

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