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Monday, Jan 16, 2012, 9:41 am

Occupy Honors Martin Luther King’s Legacy By Transcending Arbitrary Nation Boundaries

By Allison Kilkenny

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So much of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy has been sanitized by government officials and corporate media figures who would rather not deal with messy issues of poverty, economic disparity, and a global peace movement that dangerously (for the one percent, anyway) unites the lower classes.

But the presence of the Occupy Wall Street movement serves as a constant reminder of these aspects of King's legacy, particularly that he was a tireless advocate for unions, the under classes, and poor people in foreign lands being blown up by the mighty U.S. military.

Sunday night, a few hundred Occupiers and supporters gathered for a candlelight vigil to honor King. Enduring frigid temperatures, marchers sang "We Shall Overcome" and "This Little Light Of Mine."

The procession ended at Riverside Church where a number of prominent speakers and artists performed, and almost universally called for the media to not "sanitize," in the words of SEIU Executive Vice-President Estela Vasquez, King's legacy.

Sidenote: Occupy made itself right at home at Riverside and the People's Library was up and running almost immediately.

Lauren Digioia, the young woman held for 26 hours in a Grand Central Station cell following a recent Occupy protest, was in attendance.

"I'm here today because I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the pioneers of everything that Occupy continues to be about," says Digioia. "I think he would be right here with us, fighting for everything we're about…It's really important that we continue to spread his message that love can conquer hatred, and that even though racism is still a prevalent issue in our country, it is possible for us to come together as a community." 

One of the speakers at Riverside, Russell Simmons, said he decided to attend the event because King's work is not done. 

"Economic justice was a focus of his, and the idea of getting black clergy and the civil rights movement involved with the unions, involved with young, good energy like we have here today from Occupy Wall Street, and bringing them all together. Dr. King would be inspired if he knew we were doing this."

One of the youngest protesters, Jacob, age 10, says he takes the influence of King, "seriously," adding that the famous "I Have A Dream" speech "means a lot because it says how everybody can be equal no matter what race [they are,] no matter where they come from, you're all equal." 

Jacob is also a big fan of OWS. "I also take that very seriously because I totally think that was what [MLK] was about, too."

Rachel, Jacob's mom, felt it was important to bring her son to the protest because she wants him to know he can make a difference, no matter how big the problems are in this world. 

"We can always do something if we all get together. I think that's also the lesson that Martin Luther King showed is true," says Rachel. "Everyone deserves equal opportunity. Everyone deserves housing and health care and education. The basic needs. That's what he fought for."

Rachel adds that many people forget he also fought for labor issues. In fact, the whole reason King was in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968 was to express solidarity with striking sanitation workers. 

"We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We've got to see it through," King said the night before his assassination.

Reggie Johnson, a producer for WBAI's "Occupy Wall Street Radio" and supporter of the movement, was also in attendance at Sunday's vigil, and remarked that it makes a "whole lot of sense" that Occupy is continuing to bring attention to economic disparity and other societal problems given the scope of King's lifelong agenda.

"For the past couple of days, I've been hearing talk of more than just the I Have A Dream speech, which itself is not a bad speech at all, but he had so much more to say besides that," says Johnson.

Johnson particularly takes issue with society's collective amnesia regarding one of King's most radical speeches that took place at Riverside Church, and which took the U.S. government to task over its unending quest for war during a time when poverty in America became an epidemic.

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

In Johnson's opinion, the Beyond Vietnam speech was a critical moment not just in King's timeline, but in the history of the world. It was during that speech that King emphasized the need for solidarity between the under classes, regardless of different races or nationalities. He called for the poor to transcend the arbitrary boundaries constructed by their governments.

"He started to make the whole subject matter global - that the fact that just because you're not physically at Vietnam, and fighting in Vietnam, it will still affects you. I think people need to start realizing that there is a ripple effect on everything," says Johnson.

And according to Johnson, Occupy does just that, though the "ripple effect" he talks about began before the group's emergence, starting with the Arab Spring. Specifically, Johnson traces the global revolution back to when Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia over a year ago. 

"That started a whole ripple effect in that region," he says, "Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Syria, and all these other countries. Then that started a ripple effect in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, and places like that. We are starting to learn that economic disparity is happening globally. The Haves are having way too much."

OWS remembers that one of the causes King most passionately devoted his time to was economic justice. He considered his Poor People's Campaign a second phase of the civil rights struggle.

His strategy to bring the issue of economic disparity to the forefront of the national agenda will be familiar to any Occupier:

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will lead waves of the nation's poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C. next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all. We will go there, we will demand to be heard and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it, for that is what America's poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination. 

Dr. Benjamin Chavis, who as a a teenager was an assistant to King, told the audience last night that change did not come for the black community until "we organized" and were willing to "go to jail."

The legendary singer-songwriter Patti Smith (pictured above) addressed the audience at Riverside, "I believe everything we dream can come to pass through our union." 

That spirit of solidarity between peoples not because of race, or nationality, but for the commonality of struggle, more than anything else, should be King's legacy.

Allison Kilkenny is an In These Times Staff Writer and the co-host of the critically acclaimed radio show Citizen Radio. Her blog for In These Times, Uprising, focuses on efforts around the world to address the global economic crisis.

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