Monday, January 17, 2011

Our Aspirations for Economic Justice

From Honolulu Civil Beat

By Victor Geminiani

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." —Martin Luther King, Jr.

Along with millions of baby boomers of my generation, I came of age during the social and economic turmoil of the 1960’s. Deeply seared in my memory are the visions of violence during the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Freedom Workers in Selma, Alabama as they began their march to Montgomery. The march was under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was serving as the President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A mere three years later, the tragedy of his assassination on the lanai of his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis brought an end to any hope that he would be with us to see his dream fulfilled where we would together “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood….where we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day”.

I had the privilege soon after his death on that distant Lanai in Memphis to begin my work as a Vista Volunteer lawyer in Georgia with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. Atlanta was the headquarters of Dr. King’s movement and the city had been fortunate to avoid the extremes so evident to all who watched on TV the many demonstrations throughout the south demanding racial justice. Under Dr. King’s leadership, the city fathers of Atlanta had adopted a slogan that it was a “city too busy to hate.” The adoption of the slogan was an attempt by the political leadership in that city to underline the importance that racial justice played in achieving economic vitality that would benefit all.

Most of my work as a young lawyer in Georgia involved representing black communities in rural hamlets in their efforts to enforce the rights contained in the recently passed federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. I was able to personally see for the first time in my life, the social and economic devastation that racial discrimination caused for all who live in a society that tolerates such injustice.

Dr. King’s legacy is partially contained in the critical individual protections established in the federal Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1965. His moral leadership during the brief period of his public life created the impetus for our nation to at last turn away from its history of social and economic exploitation embodied in slavery. For me, his legacy is also contained in our continuing struggle as a people to incorporate the concept of economic justice for all into the opportunities afforded by our public institutions and our private interactions.

As the legislative battles to end racial injustice began to be won, Dr. King started to turn his attention to its companion in disgrace, economic injustice. The purpose of his visit to Memphis in 1968 was to call the public’s attention to the plight of black municipal workers in that city who had been consistently deprived of economic opportunities reserved for white city workers. When the City refused to negotiate with the workers, King was asked to visit Memphis to show his support. He intended to visualize for the public the plight of the workers by leading a march through the streets of the city. A day before the scheduled march, his life was taken.

Although our nation has achieved remarkable success in overcoming racial injustice over the past 50 years, the dream of economic justice for all continues to elude our aspirations as a people. Equal and fair opportunity for self achievement is the central promise we make to each other. It’s what binds our people together as a nation. It is the inspirational beacon that draws so many to our shores. And yet we continue to erect and tolerate almost insurmountable barriers to equal opportunity for so many among us.

In Hawaii, we all recognize the blessing we share by living in this special place. The nature of our island community and the melting pot of our people have done much to minimize racial injustice. I believe Dr. King would be proud of what we have achieved. However, I wonder what Dr. King would say if he were to reflect on the health of our aspirations for economic justice.

I suspect he would question our educational system that to a significant extent segregates our children based on wealth and family opportunities. I also suspect he would challenge the fundamental fairness of our judicial systems which is inaccessible to so many because of the expense of securing representation. He would wonder why our state government has twice within the last year violated the constitutional rights of those among us from Micronesia by trying to eliminate dialysis services knowing that death within a week would be the result for hundreds of people suffering from kidney failure. He would likely deplore the inhuman conditions we force our children to suffer as they try to survive in our decrepit public housing projects like Kuhio Park Terrace.

Perhaps my views have become jaded by my current my occupation as a lawyer with Lawyers for Equal Justice, a legal aid program in Hawaii that provides assistance to low income individuals and communities challenging systemic barriers to self achievement. I hope not. I love and respect the history of our islands and the people who have been blessed by overcoming oceans and hardships to finding themselves here.

My dreams are the same as Dr. King’s and I believe the same ones we all share together. They are to live in a place of peace and respect for each other, to ensure our public institutions honestly and fairly promote our common aspirations for true equal opportunity for all, that we recognize and work hard to overcome our failings and that we honor our many successes. I think that is what Dr. King would have prayed for all of us.

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