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Lessons from Memphis

Last week our staff went to Memphis to commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was profoundly moving to be immersed for three days in his words and his spirit, to be surrounded by those who worked with him and those who are carrying his work forward.

King's goal was not only to defeat segregation and win the right to vote. His mission was to reclaim the soul of our nation - an imperative that is as pressing now as it was fifty years ago. His method was to shake the moral conscience of good-hearted people - then and now a majority of the country - by opening their eyes to the injustice that had been going on for so long it appeared to be part of the order of things.

Fifty years after his death, we are in such a moment again. So much injustice has piled up that the nation cries out for healing. So many people are in prison, so many are dying at the hands of the police, so many guns flood our streets, and there is a diminishing set of opportunities for everyone. In the recent economic recovery, the top 10% of the country captured 115% of the gains. During that time, the rate of black homeownership fell from 50% to 42%.

In the Lower 9th Ward, we struggle to deal with these realities every day. I learned in Memphis that an African-American with an advanced degree has the same access to credit as a white person without any higher education. Similarly, African-Americans are paid lower wages than their white peers for the same work, and property values are lower in African-American neighborhoods than white ones, for the same house. This is why the homeowners of this proud community have been unable to obtain loans to complete rebuilding - not because they are individually unable to manage their financial lives.

King called this "the color tax, which applies on virtually every product purchased in the segregated community," and it continues to this day. These are systemic injustices, often not motivated by explicit bias, but part of what Rev. Claude Steele described in Memphis as "the overpowering nature of the systems of white supremacy, which adapt like a virus."

But King never gave up hope, partly because he found hope in the work itself. And the time is coming when King's vision will become a reality. The American people will not stand by forever as our very democracy is swallowed up by corporate interests and the extremely wealthy. We are engaged in what King called "the long but beautiful struggle for a new world." And we will win.

King speaks during Poor People's Campaign.

King speaks during Poor People's Campaign. Photo: Newark Star Ledger

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