What Would Dr. King Do?
If he were with us today, the King I know would view 10 year visa backlogs that keep families separated an unjust practice of law. He would view welcoming those fleeing political persecution but rejecting those persecutedâ€”and tortured-by abject poverty an unjust law.
For the last few days we have been memorializing the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many will twist and bend his legacy toward their own agenda. It happens every year. This year is no different.
But where would the true King stand on the heady issues of the day. During the time he walked among us, he took controversial stands on many issues, including ones that left him feeling alone and isolated by those closest to him. He took a stand on Vietnam. Poverty. The right to vote. And, lastly, he took a stand on violence before violence took a stand back.
If King were alive today, what would he stand for? More importantly, what would he die for? He once uttered “If a man hasn’t discovered something worth dying for, he isn’t fit to live.” Therefore, if King were with us today, I’m convinced he would make his last stand at the border, and would most likely die there. The border I speak of plays out in the different dimensions of the immigration debate.
The geographic border that mothers, with children in tow, risk life and limb to cross. Borders of the mind that divide minutemen and clergymen. Borders of the heart that sever undocumented parents from their U.S. born children. If I was to apply King’s teachings to the current debate on immigration, here’s where I think he would stand:
On Violence--King had an expansive definition of violence. It wasn’t just fist striking face. Knife cutting flesh. Bullet penetrating skull. No, King viewed poverty, racism and war as “triple evils” that, together, formed a vicious cycle of violence. Using King’s definition, undocumented workers working long hours in harsh conditions for little to no wages would be violence. Denying health coverage to children because of their immigration status would be violence.
Unjust laws--King believed in the law. But he also believed in the right to break unjust laws. Segregation was an unjust law. Withholding the right to vote was an unjust law. If he were with us today, the King I know would view 10 year visa backlogs that keep families separated an unjust practice of law. He would view welcoming those fleeing political persecution but rejecting those persecuted—and tortured-by abject poverty an unjust law. As a result, he would stand up for the 12 million undocumented men, women and children living in the U.S. who “broke” the law.
Work and Poverty--Before his death, King was preparing to move to scale on a major campaign against poverty. If he were with us today, he would identify the workplace as a major point of tension in the immigration debate, but also an issue around which alliances could form. I could hear King now responding to the question “Are immigrants taking jobs from native born persons?”
He’d ask, “Isn’t there a labor hierarchy in this country? Doesn’t this hierarchy take the form of a ladder, with good jobs at the top and bad jobs at the bottom? Isn’t the wanton pursuit of profits at the root of this hierarchy? Isn’t it true that Black and Brown people are overwhelmingly stuck at the bottom of the ladder, and can’t climb to the top because the ladder is broken? Isn’t the ladder broken for a host of reasons that include racial bias, lack of skills and education and language barriers? If yes, then why not bring Black, Brown and other concerned persons into relationship with one another in order to repair the ladder.”
While in a Birmingham jail, King penned on tissue paper a compelling argument to fellow clergy leaders for “Why we can’t wait”. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, was a response to calls for King to slow down the movement, to take a gradual approach to dismantling segregation.
King’s response was that we can’t wait. If he was alive today, the King I know would make the same argument with respect to sensible and comprehensive immigration reform. His argument would go something like this: When hundreds are scorched to death each year in desert heat; when women are raped and don’t report it because of fear of deportation; when millions live in the shadows of the law and are exploited because of it; when little children are forced to ask relatives “Why does mommy and daddy have to leave?”, then you will know why we can’t wait.
King’s teachings are more relevant today than ever before.
Hockett is with DC based national social justice nonprofit, Center for Community Change. Hockett is developing a training curriculum that seeks to build alliances among multi racial and multi ethnic constituencies around issues of mutual self interest. www.communitychange.org
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