Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I woke this morning thinking how wonderful it is to be in Arizona celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and how remote Evan Meacham seems in the context of African American people. Among other enlightened acts (not), Meacham called African Americans "pickaninnies," referred to his political foes as "just a band of homosexuals and dissident Democrats," once asked for a list of all gay state employees, and actually rescinded the state holiday on MLK,Jr. Day. It was later reinstated and he was impeached for criminal fraud. Prince of a fellow, eh?

Later, I attended an MLK. Jr., honors award breakfast hosted by Tempe to acknowledge the work of community diversity activists. My dear friend, the Rev. Trina Zelle, received this year's award in the "individual adult" category for her work with Arizona Interfaith Justice on behalf of workers and immigrants. It was good to be in a huge crowd of people of all faiths, classes, races, ethnicities, sexes, orientations, all there to honor one of the contemporary world's great giants, good to take time to remember his life and his great work. I remember him well--his work, his life, his senseless assassination. Dr. King changed my world. He made it better.

The keynote speech was delivered by the remarkable and talented Alonzo Jones, Director for Multicultural Student Services at Arizona State University. His speech was a masterful and novel recounting of the life of the man we all know only for a snapshot of his Civil Rights work, and his assassination. He spoke to the youth among us, saying, memorably, that education is not about earning more money. It's preparation for answering an unknown question--a question that will define your life, give it meaning, and may come at a time when you least expect it.

It was a wonderful keynote. In all respects but one. Remarkably, he said not one word about Latinos generally, or about Mexican immigrants specifically, who, today, are facing a degree of segregation as severe, and ruthless, and ignorant, and shameful as anyting the nation experienced in the 1940s or 50s.

Is it segregation? I think so. There aren't separate water fountains everywhere, but in some work sites, there's no water at all for dirt-poor laborers. There aren't rules about who sits where on the bus, but in this city, there may as well be no buses at all. We have too few to do much good.

But I'm not speaking literally. I'm speaking about a kind of apartheid that defines a people by race and class, ignores that people's desperation in tallying up its "crimes," and entraps and deports its parents while imprisoning their children here in Halliburton-made, for-profit prisons. It's the kind that sakes out Catholic churches in Hispanic neighborhoods--that would be Sherrif Joe and his thugs--just to remind the people that they can be rounded up even if they have lived here for 6 generations. It's the kind that pays the people a fraction of what it actually takes to live, and sometimes doesn't even pay them at all. It's the kind that drives them underground, in terror and despair, after having sent advertisers to their hometowns to lure them here--illegally.

In any other context, we'd call that "entrapment" and the "crime" would either be written off entirely or judged with considerable leniency. But because their skins are brown, and they're poor, and desperate, and unskilled, and without recourse, we don't have to follow rules of justice or even rules of common decency. This is no way to honor Dr. King. This is not what he died for, and not what he taught us by his living and by his words of power.

So, on this MLK Day--and I believe Dr. King would approve wholeheartedly--my heart and my thoughts are with my Latino brothers and Latina sisters, and to them I want to say, one day we will transcend tribe, class, race, and nation. One day all people will know that what goes around, come around, and know that peace indeed requires justice. One day there will indeed be "the beloved community." We shall overcome someday.