by Bill Onasch
Today is the observance of the Martin Luther King Jr Holiday in the USA. It’s a day off with pay for most bank, public sector, and many unionized workers but business as usual for most of the private sector.
The very creation of this symbolic gesture toward African-Americans was itself a hard won 32 year struggle. Accepted in some states, rejected in others, it was finally included in the Federal Uniform Monday Holiday Act for 2000. There are still some states that give it second billing to a different symbolism—it’s also the birthday of Robert E Lee, who led the Confederate forces defending slavery during the Civil War.
I have not yet seen the film Selma. The reviews have, of course, been mixed but I was impressed with a criticism from an unexpected source—Thomas Perez, the current administration’s Labor Secretary. His complaint was that the movie did not adequately depict the solidarity shown by sections of organized labor in Selma and elsewhere. The photo above illustrates both Black and white prominent union officials at Dr King’s side.
The connection between trade unionists and civil rights was not just long standing—it was seminal. Most historians view the Montgomery Bus Boycott, beginning in December, 1955, as the birth of the modern mass civil rights movement and it was through that struggle that Dr King first drew national attention. But he was not the instigator of that opening victory against Jim Crow.
The bold action was planned and launched by a group of Black trade unionists whose main strategist was an activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—E.D. Nixon. They lined up support from some in the NAACP—including the local branch secretary Rosa Parks–who thought more was needed than the litigation and lobbying that was the focus of their national group. Through their union they had contacts throughout the country who were prepared to support a bus boycott—including later sending a fleet of station wagons to Montgomery to help transport those honoring the boycott.
But these relatively unknown workers thought it was essential to have a prominent respectable leader as their public face. In the Black community in Montgomery at that time that meant going to the clergy. The well established preachers were reluctant but they convinced an initially hesitant young Dr King, new to town, to be their public spokesperson. Once he committed, he never looked back—even as going to jail for two weeks on conspiracy charges, receiving credible death threats, and a later fire bombing of his home. The appeals of those arrested led to a Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public transit was unconstitutional and the boycott ended in victory after a little more than a year.
The fight for racial equality remained Dr King’s day job for the rest of his life. But he also early on broadened his vision for championing the interests of working people, especially the poor, of all colors. And he became an opponent of the Vietnam war and an advocate of nuclear disarmament.
Dr King’s efforts attracted international attention as well. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations he was often praised by the White House. But all the while, the attitude of America’s secret police—the FBI—was far different.
J Edgar Hoover thought Dr King was the most dangerous threat to his American Way. Hoover not only surrounded him with spies, including Dr King’s always nearby official photographer. Under Hoover’s personal direction a dirty tricks campaign, including anonymous red baiting and adultery allegations, was spread far and wide.
Dr King’s final mission was a trip to Memphis to support an AFSCME strike by mostly Black sanitation workers. He rallied the spirit of the strikers and summoned further solidarity that rattled the city bosses. But then he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet. An FBI investigation assured the nation that a racist gunman had acted alone. If you can’t trust the FBI who can you trust?
I do not share Dr King’s total devotion to nonviolence. More like another great Black leader of the day, Malcolm X—also the victim of a politically motivated murder—I believe in the right to self-defense by any means necessary. But I always admired and supported Dr King during his life and as historians and biographers have further documented his remarkable legacy my appreciation has grown.
Figures with the vision and devotion to duty of Dr King are rare indeed. His loss to the movements he helped lead was a blow from which they have not yet fully recovered. While we may not see another like him in our time there are surely those like E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks. I remain convinced that collectively African-Americans–and all working people–can persevere to realize Dr King’s signature dream.
Need to Secure Boundaries
I’m not talking about stopping undocumented migrants crossing the border from Mexico. My reference is to a relatively new scientific approach to interaction between land, water, and air to measure the health of our planet. Within this model there are nine critical safety boundaries that should not be crossed. These are listed in a good nutshell summary of this Earth System approach in a posting on Climate & Capitalism.
If you are thinking this sounds like pretty heavy stuff I would agree—and a science teacher I am not. But when scientists tell us, as they did in a paper published in Science last week, that we have already breached four of these boundaries I take notice. A Reuters story opened,
“Climate change and high rates of extinctions of animals and plants are pushing the Earth into a danger zone for humanity, a scientific report card about mankind’s impact on nature said on Thursday. An international team of 18 experts, expanding on a 2009 report about ‘planetary boundaries’ for safe human use, also sounded the alarm about clearance of forests and pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers. ‘I don’t think we’ve broken the planet but we are creating a much more difficult world,’ [said] Sarah Cornell, one of the authors at the Stockholm Resilience Center”
This grim big picture was supplemented by more bad news. Another Reuters report,
“Sea level rise in the past two decades has accelerated faster than previously thought in a sign of climate change threatening coasts from Florida to Bangladesh, a study said on Wednesday.”
From the New York Times,
“A team of scientists, in a groundbreaking analysis of data from hundreds of sources, has concluded that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and the animals living in them. ‘We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,’ said Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author of the new research, which was published on Thursday in the journal Science.”
Week before last in The Guardian,
“The north Texas birthplace of fracking has been rattled by 11 earthquakes in just over 24 hours, the US Geological Survey (USGS) said on Wednesday. All of the earthquakes, which ranged in magnitude from 1.6 to 3.6, occurred around the town of Irving, west of Dallas. The first earthquake, a magnitude of 2.3, struck around 7.37am local time on Tuesday, near the site of the former Dallas Cowboys stadium. No major injuries or damage were reported in any of the quakes. Until 2008, there was only one reported earthquake in what is known as the Fort Worth Basin. Since then, however, there have been more than 100 small quakes. Multiple scientific studies have connected similar quakes – in Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and elsewhere – to the underground injection wells used to dispose of wastewater from fracked oil and gas wells.”
And last Friday AFP reported,
“Record-breaking temperatures scorched the planet last year, making 2014 the hottest in more than a century and raising new concerns about global warming, US government scientists said Friday. The much-anticipated report by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was confirmed by an independent analysis from the US space agency NASA that reached the same conclusion.”
On the same topic in the New York Times,
“the vast majority of those who study the climate say the earth is in a long-term warming trend that is profoundly threatening and caused almost entirely by human activity. They expect the heat to get much worse over coming decades, but already it is killing forests around the world, driving plants and animals to extinction, melting land ice and causing the seas to rise at an accelerating pace.”
So what emergency measures are being taken to repair, or at least contain these breached boundaries? I’ll take a look at what’s out there in the next WIR.
That’s all for this week.
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