Monday, January 16, 2006

King's legacy

Every now and then Lolis Eric Elie tells 'em what they need to hear.

King's message lost on politicians
Monday, January 16, 2006
Lolis Eric Elie

This is that day set aside each year so Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush or Ray Nagin can stand up and say, "If Martin Luther King were alive today, he would agree with me."

But no matter how many times they say this, my mind goes back to Memphis, 1968. My mind goes back to the actions King took in his final days, the ones that make liars out of each and every one of these people.

In April of that year, King had been working on a march that would bring thousands of poor Americans to Washington. But he put that work on hold to embrace some of the poorest, dirtiest, most disrespected workers in America: the sanitation workers in Memphis.

After several of their members were crushed to death in a garbage truck, these men called on King and others to bring their plight to the attention of the nation.

"You see, though it was not part of the Poor People's Campaign, it was consistent, because here were people, garbage workers, who were the worst-paid and had the lowest status of any group, demanding better wages and better working conditions," Coretta Scott King wrote in her 1969 book, "My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr."

"My husband felt he should be identified with them. He said, 'This is not a race war; it is now a class war.' "

Measuring up

How are we to measure the mayor of New Orleans in light of King's brave words?

Nagin deserves praise for the pay raises he budgeted for city workers in his first two years in office. But those raises are a distant memory. Not long after the hurricane, when it was clear the city had little money and few prospects for an infusion of capital, Nagin fired most city workers.

What about his top staff members, the ones he awarded substantial pay raises in better times? They kept their jobs and weren't even asked to accept symbolic pay cuts.

What about the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission? How many members of that august group can be said to represent the interests and aspirations of those low-income people who make up a majority of our citizens?

Put another way, can anybody imagine Ray Nagin making it a city priority to improve the lives of sanitation workers?

Hypocrisy on parade

Today, as our city leaders engage in their annual Martin Luther King Day march, there are a few things I can say about it with little fear that the facts will later prove me wrong.

King's dream will be tirelessly evoked and cited as inspiration for the direction the city is taking.

There will be few white people in attendance because, despite what King said in his most famous speech, the event has been allowed to become a virtually all-black affair.

There will be little talk of poverty or class. Hypocrisy will be on parade.

No comments: