By Jim Miller
This year our ritual celebration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes in the midst of a contentious mayoral election. And while some might try to bracket this year’s remembrance off from the ugly fray, that would be a mistake. As I noted in an earlier column on this subject, remembering “a sanitized version of King as a vanilla saint who called on us to just move beyond our differences does a disservice to him and his legacy” because “[o]ur collective remembrance of MLK is most useful when it troubles us.”
And King would be deeply troubled to see where we are today nationally and locally. Yes, the man who said, “one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” would be profoundly disturbed by the fact that we are living in an era of historic economic inequality.
He would decry the reality that here in San Diego the wealthiest 20% of households take in half of all income in the region while more than 28% of working San Diegans earn less than a self sufficient wage and one out of five children in San Diego lives in poverty.
The man who said that “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress” and who died as he was fighting for the economic rights of striking public sector sanitation workers would be dismayed by the current national assault on labor and the public sector itself. King would note that if there is radicalism afoot today, it is not coming from those pointing to the existence of a glaring and growing inequality, but from those who claim that all public institutions are suspect, that taxes are inherently evil, and that business models and yet more privatization and outsourcing can solve everything.
Here in San Diego, he would recognize the constant anti-union drumbeat on the right and in much of the mainstream press as part of what helps sustain “an edifice which creates beggars.” By consistently assailing the last remaining segment of working people with union jobs and a strong political voice, the anti-union drumbeat serves not to raise everyone up, but to drag everyone down into the same hole.
MLK would look at Kevin Faulconer and his corporate backers with their opposition to raising the minimum wage, maintaining prevailing wages, affordable housing measures, and self determination for working class communities of color as part of the problem.
And King, who recognized that racism and economic inequality are inextricably linked would survey the current political landscape here in San Diego and see the fundamental injustice being done by those waging a malicious and dishonest campaign against the Barrio Logan Community Plan and call it out as environmental racism at its worst—powerful corporate interests trying to run roughshod over a working class community of color.
He would also look at the insidiously racist campaign being funded by the local Lincoln Club, condemn it for what it is, and note Faulconer’s complicity with it. King would underline the fact that moneyed interests are playing the race card to divide and conquer San Diego. He’d point out, as Tom Shepard did recently, that, “Using racism as a tactic in a campaign is one of the things that is not considered ethical.”
>As a scholar of local African American history, UCSD’s Mychal Odom sees even Faulconer’s efforts to pose with selected African American leaders South of 8 in a web ad as part of a divide and conquer strategy: “Faulconer’s ad aims to exploit contests between Black and Brown San Diegans for jobs, education, housing, and public space.” But the real legacy of Martin Luther King, Odom observes, was something altogether different, “Take for example the poor peoples’ movement. Dr. King aimed to unite a multiracial coalition over working class concerns. Even here these issues have historically been a cause for San Diegans of color to mobilize together. Faulconer’s ad is neither in the spirit of civil rights struggles in San Diego nor in Dr. King’s legacy.”
King would surely see the current mayor’s race in San Diego as a contest between David Alvarez, a living embodiment of his legacy, and its antithesis in Kevin Faulconer. The Alvarez story tells us that even the working class son of a fast food worker and a janitor from the barrio can not just make it, but lead us, represent “us.” It is a redemptive tale that elevates us all. It suggests that the “arc of history” does “bend toward justice” and inspires us to dream of a beloved community that rejects a politics that pits neighbor against neighbor in the service of the interests of those already blessed with abundance.
Indeed, if Dr. King were with us he would undoubtedly note the fact that this is a political contest between those who have historically held economic and political power for most of San Diego’s history and those who want to make city hall open for everyone, regardless of their pedigree. King would call on us to reject fear and division and vote for a San Diego that embraces the beauty of its diversity and sees the great possibility that comes with raising everyone up. He’d remind us that we can only really live up to the creed that we are “America’s Finest City” when we do the deed of giving everyone a place at the table.
For doing so MLK would be condemned by the editorial page of the San Diego Union-Tribune as a radical, attacked by local right wing radio for being an extremist tool of the unions, and chastised for being too hard on CEOs by the Voice of San Diego. One can only imagine the kind of bile the Lincoln Club would send to your mailbox about him. But he wouldn’t be dissuaded.
The real Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would surely tell us we need to move forward with a “divine dissatisfaction” until we “no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.”