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What Would King Do?

by Brandon Johnson, CTU Organizer  |  01/21/2013

ILLUSTRATION: MLKThe two most dynamic movements that reshaped the nation during the past three decades are the labor and civil rights movements. Our combined strength is potentially enormous.

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. clearly recognized that the issues of race, exploitation and corruption are inextricably related, and these ills must collectively be opposed to have any chance at sustaining a fruitful movement. His understanding of the power and potential the civil rights and labor movements could obtain through a co-existing struggle was embedded in a hope that the combined effort would yield incredible possibilities for working families, and be seen as a portentous force to those who stand in the way of righteousness.

Our fight for public education must be fastened to the overall struggle for social justice. The recent Chicago Teachers Union strike demonstrated our collective desire to push back corporate reform efforts that are dead set on taking the dignity out of teaching and curtailing rights of workers. I believe our sincerest resolve during the strike was rooted in a profound belief that every child deserves an education equal to the children of those who seek to destroy our democratic institutions. Dr. King understood that the interests of unions mirrored the plight of communities devastated by institutional racism, and those who controlled these institutions were unreliable and had to be checked. As labor and civil rights pioneer A. Philip Randolph said in his opening remarks at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, “We cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.”

What Randolph, the founder of the march, may not have known was that his words would still be applicable today. Dr. King’s soul was unwavering and sure. Therefore, as a union, we too must accept our role as the vanguard of today’s movement for social and racial justice if we are to have any movement at all.

Enemies of Labor and Civil Rights

The ruling class has a national agenda to execute taxing and economic schemes that propose to privatize government services in order to deepen their ideological control over the masses and their purses. This is especially true in public education. The desire of these corporate types to institute a business model for public education is cloaked in the demeaning and humiliating past of Jim Crow. The corporate deformers of public education use buzz words like “choice” and “competition.” These slogans are akin to catch phrases like “right to work” or “at will” employees that have deep ties to an ugly time in our nation’s history. Dr. King warned us of these ominous policies when he said in a speech on right-to-work laws in 1961:

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights . . . wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights.”

Ultimately, these policies have led to the reemergence of Jim Crow times. The design to profit from such practices can be best illustrated in the school-to-prison pipeline, which warrants an entirely separate conversation. However, Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” points out that this system of mass incarceration—mainly of black men—means that “a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” The two largest private prison companies had $3 billion in revenue in 2010. The ruling class has not only benefited from creating false educational “choices,” but has also benefitted from a system that has greater incentive to cage humans than to educate them.

The Change We Want To See

The ruling class has used its power and influence to position itself as people of good will, and as propagators of civil rights and justice for poor people. However, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan referred to the film “Waiting for Superman” as a “Rosa Parks moment.” Not only is his comparison painfully off base, it insults the ancestors on whose shoulders I stand. Dr. King saw privatization as the enemy of civil rights and stated that the powerful forces that want us to rely on their goodwill are the ones who resent our will to organize, and profit by exploiting us.

The reliance on low wages to exploit profits has undermined our economy, created a permanent underclass and damaged public education, leaving hopelessness in its path. However, the labor and civil rights movement was and is the driving force capable of transforming misery and despair into hope and progress. If Dr. King is correct that our collective struggle for labor and civil rights is intertwined, then we unionists must accept our role as leaders of society. The strike proved that we can achieve more together than we can apart. We must use this newfound power to effect change in a world where “change” was once just a dream.

Chicago Teachers Union