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WILLIAM JOHNSON

William JohnsonI thank the Hobart and William Smith community for the kind invitation to join you in celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the relevance of his work for our times, nearly 40 years after his work on this earth ended.

Today's program is important for at least two important reasons. First, it allows a person like me, whose life was directly and profoundly impacted by the Civil Rights movement defined and driven by Dr. King, to translate the meaning of his work to many of you who were born long after his death. He was one of the most powerful and influential citizens of the world in the 20th century. He needs to be clearly understood as the multidimensional and complex individual he was, not merely for the eloquence of his speaking style.

Second, we need to understand how far this nation has progressed since his time, and the lasting impact -- or lack thereof -- of his movement.

To begin, let me place my life in the context of Dr. King's. Like him, I am a product of the segregated South, born and raised in a place with the arresting name of Lynchburg, Va., on August 22, 1942. This was 13 years, 7 months, and 7 days after his birth, which positions me roughly one-half generation behind him. By the time he was graduating from high school at the age of 15 in 1944, I was three years away from entering kindergarten. When he was graduating from Morehouse College in 1948, I was just entering first grade. When he was awarded his Ph.D. from Boston College in 1955, I was just completing seventh grade.

Like Dr. King, I spent my entire K-12 years in totally segregated school -- schools that were not only racially segregated but purposefully maintained as second-class institutions. The one powerfully redeeming quality about these segregated, deficient schools was the extraordinarily talented teachers who were dedicated to producing first-class students.

Let me note, parenthetically, that segregated schools were legally banned by Brown v. Board of Education during my last six years of education in Lynchburg and everywhere else in the U.S.A. None of that mattered -- the schools in Lynchburg were not desegregated until eight years after Brown, and then only two students at a time.

On another occasion, we can spend time looking more closely at the times and conditions which molded my life. Today's focus is on Martin Luther King Jr. So let's take a couple of moments to reflect on his life.

Here I want to quote from a speech I delivered exactly eight years ago to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in Washington, D.C., in another tribute to Dr. King:

So much took place during his 39 short years that one does not know where to begin and where to leave off. His life was so rich and vital, full of opportunities that few are privileged to experience, and full of love for mankind. One compelling insight is that he was born and raised in the comfort of the middle class, educated in the best academies (Morehouse College, Crozier Divinity School, and Boston University), and afforded a wide array of career options. He could have chosen from among the most prestigious pulpits in this nation, or from comfortable academic positions. He could have just as easily returned to his father's pulpit and the progressive Atlanta black middle class of his day.

Instead, he went to the battlefront of Alabama and its capital city, Montgomery (in 1954, one year before Emmet Till was brutally lynched in Mississippi), where rigid lines of segregation limited the aspirations and lifestyles of black citizens. When pressed to assume the leadership of the beleaguered Montgomery Improvement Association, he did not pass the buck. Knowing full well the life-threatening dangers ahead, he did not waver. …

Dr. King's legacy includes a unique contribution to the betterment of life for black people, but this was only the beginning. He made equal contributions to the ideals of peaceful resolutions of conflicts and the eradication of poverty. His adaptation and reformation of Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence is a major part of his legacy. Many great people would have been satisfied to make a major contribution in any one of these areas, but Dr. King excelled in at least four: race and justice; peace and hope; poverty and opportunity; and non-violence and brotherly love.

Dr. King was a great moralist and strategist, who saw in everyday life opportunities for teaching and systemic change. He was an extremely complex man, whose sense of civic duty and purpose was all-defining. Historian Christopher Lasch called King "America's greatest philosopher" because his call to action encompassed all areas of American life and American culture. His doctoral studies in philosophy were not wasted on the esoteric aspects of life, and he translated those studies into life-transforming actions.

To understand the depth of his philosophy, I think it is important to remember the United States of the 1950s and '60s when Dr. King was active. Many of you weren't born then, and may not be fully aware of the struggles and passions of those days.

In the late '50s and 1960s, blacks were beginning to challenge the racial segregation of schools, libraries, and all other public accommodations throughout the South. Police, in the South, used dogs and other forms of vicious force to subdue blacks on freedom marches for their civil rights. Court proceedings increasingly began to strike down the legal support for racial segregation. Race riots erupted in major northern cities, including Rochester. Just in the year 1963 -- the same year that Martin Luther King gave his "I have A Dream" speech in Washington -- there were over 10,000 anti-racist demonstrations in cities and towns across the U.S.

And the bitterly divisive Vietnam war was going on, and over 58,000 American soldiers were losing their lives.

Vietnam was fought in the shadows of the Cold War.

During the Cold War we lived with such things as M-A-D, or MAD, an acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD was a policy by which the United States and the Soviet Union built huge arsenals of nuclear weapons, but knew that whoever shot first would be annihilated when the other side released its weapons -- so, of course, no one fired first. It was a strategy of deterrence based on mutual suicide and destruction of the world. It was really a form of mass terrorism that frightened the entire planet.

What else defined American society in the '50s and '60s?

There was blackmail of homosexuals. There were botched backstreet abortions. There was no contraception easily available. There were secret files kept on college students. Women were unequal and did not control their own destinies. The fact that women today can fully participate in college life, as students and faculty, is a reflection of the '60s Women's Movement.

The 50s and 60s were a time of environmental devastation. Rivers were regarded as little more than sewers. Smoke stacks that spewed pollution into the air were considered prestigious. They were a sign of economic vitality. Toxic wastes were routinely dumped in urban neighborhoods like Love Canal. This lead to the Environmental Movement and federal legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act (all of which are now under siege).

The late 1950s, and especially the 1960s, were times of great social upheaval. But they led to a lot of profound changes -- changes that, in the opinion of many Americans, made us a better and more egalitarian society.

To my mind, the biggest change to come out of the '50s and '60s was the challenge to arbitrary judgments by those in authority. Before Civil Rights and Vietnam and the Women's Movement and the Environmental Movement, the prevailing attitude was that the people in charge knew best. Judges and juries, for example, would routinely accept the word of an arresting police officer -- there was no thought that he might be lying -- rather than the testimony of an innocent defendant. After the arrests of thousands of innocent anti-war and civil rights protestors and trumped-up charges, people began to question authority and demand accountability and transparency. This skepticism, which I think is healthy, became part of everyday life.

After high school in Lynchburg, I attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. I got a bachelor's degree in 1965 and a master's in 1967, both in political science. I closely followed Dr. King's major rallies which drew hundreds of thousands of people to Washington. At Howard University, the roots of my own activism were planted. Howard was an unusual place, at the time known as the "capstone of Negro education." Noted activists studied and taught there. The legal strategy to challenge segregation was developed at its law school. Howard was a place which attracted the children of privilege, as well as the working class. You could get a solid education in the classroom, as well as at the various student hangouts.

At Howard, I was a reporter, and eventually editor-in-chief, on the student newspaper. At the time, it was the largest newspaper on any predominately black university campus in America. My fellow reporters and editors included people like Michael Thelwell and Claude Brown. Fellow students H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael were frequent visitors to the newsroom. Thelwell went on to become secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which organized many of the major protests of the Civil Rights era (and wasn't always nonviolent). Claude Brown wrote Manchild in the Promised Land, which opened the eyes of a lot of white folk to the oppressive conditions under which urban blacks lived (and became an American classic). H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael went on to lead the Black Panthers and SNCC, respectively. Both groups ridiculed Dr. King's pacifism and called for the violent overthrow of oppressive mainstream power structures.

In that newsroom, there were powerful discussions about race in America. And, of course, the Anti-War Movement and the Women's Movement and the Environmental Movement were also powerful subjects. America was changing. The old order was being replaced by a new order. The tension and promise in the air were palpable, whether or not one agreed with everything that was said or done. It was here that I learned to sift through competing viewpoints for the truth. It was here that I learned not to take everything I heard at face value, without doing additional research.

The common denominator between Dr. King and more activist organizations of the times was a healthy skepticism. Dr. King called on us "to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies" -- and we did, by dissecting those policies to reveal the facts, and then trying to create a more inclusive and just society. We, as a nation, looked at ourselves in the mirror and questioned who we really were and who we wanted to be. It may seem counterintuitive, but skepticism began to pull us together as a nation.

Today, the lack of a healthy skepticism threatens to pull us apart. Since the recent presidential election, there's been a lot of talk about "red" states and "blue" states aligning according to different values. It's not a question of values. What we're seeing is the erosion of a healthy skepticism -- the lack of self-reflection, the substitution of cynicism for skepticism, and the lazy reliance on anger, self-righteousness, and demagoguery.

The result is distressing to say the least.

As Bill Moyers said last month at Harvard, "For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologies hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad -- but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts."

We most often depend on the mass media for the facts. Martin Luther King, Jr. deeply respected the media -- newspapers and television -- for their ability to dig deep and uncover the facts. "Without the press," King wrote in 1961, "there might have been untold massacre in the South."

Today, most of the analysis I see on the news is superficial. Mostly, it's a form of "he said/she said." Reporters don't go much farther than interviewing people on both sides of an issue, as if all viewpoints were valid and hold equal weight. Essentially, many journalists today hide behind objectivity in the face of injustice. There is a reluctance to speak truth to power. Political power is used not only to dispense perks, but to punish opposition. Thus, facts which could effectively counteract propaganda are suppressed. That's one reason so many people support policies that will harm them, like massive federal tax cuts for the rich and a war of choice, like the privatization of health and pension benefits, like the severing of the social and economic safety net which protects the lifestyles of millions of hard-working, marginalized American families.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't all peace and love and spirituality. "The main issue is economic," he said; and his activism always had an economic basis.

It was the existence of strong black businesses and strong neighborhoods in southern cities that allowed his boycotts of white establishments to be successful. In Montgomery, Alabama, for example, the boycott of segregated busses was successful because neighbors supported each other, such as independent black cab drivers who charged passengers the standard bus fare. The boycotts of segregated stores in Birmingham and other cities were successful because stores had local owners and depended on a local market, and blacks had enough buying power to make boycotts an effective weapon.

The Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King achieved its greatest success whenever it could build on a solid foundation of strong African-American neighborhoods with stable families, businesses, newspapers, colleges, churches, and adequate local buying power.

Today, our inner cities are characterized by intense poverty and problems. Today, the once-solid foundations that Dr. King relied on are gone. They've moved to the suburbs. Today, in our larger metro areas, if you're white and middle-class, you most likely live in a suburb with jobs and good schools; if you're poor and minority, you live in the inner city where entry-level jobs are scarce and schools are underachieving. Over the past 40 years our metro areas have become extremely segregated according to race and income.

Martin Luther King, Jr. saw this happening. In his 1967 book "Chaos or Community," he wrote, "The suburbs are white nooses around the black necks of cities." This wasn't a criticism of suburbs. In the 1940s and 50s, small numbers of white people moved to the suburbs for a variety of innocuous reasons. By the 1960s they were moving in droves. They moved primarily because of fear -- fear of blacks.

In 1968, Dr. King called this "the anarchy of unplanned growth," and said it is one of America's greatest problems. Thirty-six years later, that's still true in upstate New York. As mayor, I can look out the window of my third-floor office in City Hall and literally watch the dollar bills fly out of city neighborhoods and land in the suburbs.

It isn't all due to personal choice. It's due primarily to a whole host of public policies and public subsidies that make it easier to build and live in suburban areas: transportation policies that privilege the car over mass transit; housing policies that effectively exclude the poor by requiring large lot and house sizes; environmental policies that make it cheaper to build new rather renovate the old -- not to mention the lingering effects of discriminatory policies that, for decades after World War II, essentially made it impossible for blacks to move to the suburbs. For decades, African-Americans couldn't get HUD or FHA or VA mortgages.

One result of unplanned growth and the uneven distribution of wealth in our metro areas is that inner city neighborhoods are often marked by weak institutions, staggering poverty, and a demoralized populace. Today, in many inner city neighborhoods, sprawl has undermined the once-solid foundations that supported Martin Luther King's struggles for justice. Today, in many inner cities, it seems that the KKK has been replaced by the drug dealer as the threat to the African-American community. The lynching rope has been replaced with the cheap hand gun. For a black brother or sister to use drugs or guns to endanger themselves or to undermine the stability of their neighborhoods makes about as much sense to me as it would for blacks to join the KKK in the old South.

Martin Luther King saw the race riots that inflamed American cities in the '60s and observed that the black rioters had engaged in "incontestable and deplorable" crimes. But these crimes were "derivative," he said, "being of the greater crimes of the white society." While I deplore the fact some of our African-American citizens are a destructive element on our city streets, I understand how Martin Luther King could call this behavior "derivative." Martin Luther King said the greater crimes are often directed "against property rather than against people" for they result in an inequitable distribution of wealth.

I have fought for years against sprawl, what Martin Luther King called "the anarchy of unplanned growth." To my dismay and frustration, I ran and lost an election last year on regional solutions. My dismay is that, during the campaign, we couldn't even discuss regionalism. It became a codeword for merging city and suburban schools or putting affordable housing in the suburbs -- and nothing raises the fears of suburbanites as much as the thought of poor minorities entering their schools and neighborhoods. My frustration arises because we're not dealing with intractable problems. High taxes, bad city schools, and violent crime are not intractable problems. It is within our power, if we had the will, to solve them, to create regional solutions that are decent and just for all citizens, wherever they live. Nearly every year in Rochester, some young black man is killed for his designer coat or designer sneakers. I often asked myself how one human being could kill another human being for a status symbol, for a brand name. I became fascinated with the marketing strategy called "branding."

In 1962, the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested and jailed in Birmingham, a man named Phil Knight started a sneaker company called Nike. By the early '80s, Knight realized that he didn't have to make the products he sold. He could have them made by subcontractors in third-world countries for a fraction of what they cost to produce in the United States. He did this, and Nike's profits soared.

It set a new standard for manufacturing. Companies that were traditionally expected to have a 100 percent markup between the cost of factory production and the retail price could now get a markup of 400 percent. Wall Street loved this idea, and demanded the same from other manufacturers. We all know the result. Jobs began to leave the U.S. in droves. The more jobs a company exported, the more its stock went up. As Phil Knight said, "There is no value in making things anymore."

What did Phil Knight do with his enormous profits? He advertised like no other company had ever done before. While similar companies were spending tens of millions of dollars on advertising each year, Nike was spending hundred of millions.

Nike hired Michael Jordan and other prominent athletes; it sponsored high-profile extreme sporting events, and opened Niketown stores -- all of which worshiped the "swosh" as both art and heroic symbol. Phil Knight turned Nike's "Just do it" logo into an attitude, a lifestyle that every young person had to have. In other words, he created a superbrand. It's the idea that image is everything.

And, all too often, an inner city kid with a self-image or self-esteem problem will kill for a brand name coat or pair of sneakers. A pair of sneakers has more value than a human life. And the reliance of American brands on sweatshop manufacturers in places like Philippines and Vietnam has drained too many American communities of jobs. Main Street no longer has value compared to Wall Street.

In 1967, Martin Luther King said that "a true revolution of values will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America only to take profits with no concern for social betterment … and say, 'this is not just.'"

This is not just.

Globalization, as Dr. King knew, is not the inevitable result of an invisible economic hand. In 1983 -- around the time many of you were born -- President Reagan began the rapid dismantling of anti-trust laws. Tax laws were changed to give favorable treatment to foreign profits. Laws to restrict the powers of organized labor were passed. In other words, public policies largely structure the global economy.

And the consequences are profound. An article in the Washington Post not long ago showed how the National Basketball Association is not about basketball anymore. The NBA makes its money not from basketball, but from selling products -- from its image, its brand. Today, it's the "bad guy/Allen Iverson" image that sells. So you have kids, black and white, walking around with baggy clothes made in Bangladesh doing little more with their lives than acting tough.

It makes sense when you think about it. If companies are going to ship thousands of jobs overseas, they have to take people out of play. Poor and poorly-educated young people can't be walking around looking for jobs. That might cause them to think instead of react and start a new social movement for jobs and opportunity like in the 1960s. Instead, not only do people buy companies' clothes, but they also advertise them by wearing the company logo on those clothes, which keeps the cycle of branding going.

Conservative columnist George Will calls the 1960s "an embarrassment" in American history. I'm not nostalgic, but I think we could use more of the '60s-style skepticism about today's corporate America and the rising inequality between the haves and have-nots.

There's an immediacy to Martin Luther King's philosophy -- a practicality that marches hand-in-hand with the spiritual. We too often celebrate a Martin Luther King that is frozen in time, but his philosophy is a living, breathing being. Whenever we discuss strong neighborhoods, local jobs, self-reliance, and cooperation, Dr. King still has something to say to use. As mayor, those are my major considerations, so I'm grateful for the inspiration of Dr. King.

In closing, I'd like to leave you with a quote from Martin Luther King's 1967 Christmas Sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was pastor: "It really boils down to this," he said, "all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny, whatever affects one directly, affect all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality."

If we can remember this, everything else will fall into place.

 

INFORMATION

"Redeem The Dream," City of Rochester Mayor William A. Johnson, Jr.

January 19, 2005