On more than one Martin Luther King Day, Chicago columnist Vernon Jarrett wrote columns highlighting the role of E.D. Nixon, the local organizer who recruited King to lead the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
His point was that while history focused on King– the way it always focuses on great leaders — the vast grassroots movement he shepherded was far more than a mass of aggrieved followers. It included hundreds of local leaders, deeply rooted in their communities, many of them maintaining struggles over decades with remarkable tenacity and determination, often at great risk, and far outside the limelight.
A longtime Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organizer and president of the Montgomery NAACP, Nixon had led a march of 750 African American men to the Montgomery County courthouse to register to vote – in 1940. He not only recruited King, he also recruited Rosa Parks, another long-time activist, for the campaign against segregation on city buses.
So it’s more than fitting that on this King Day, Mary Mitchell’s column memorializes Hazel Johnson, who died Wednesday at age 75.
Johnson shared the stage briefly with another great leader, Barack Obama, who worked on a campaign for asbestos abatement at Altgeld Gardens in the late 1980s, before heading on to law school and broader horizons.
Johnson began researching toxic contamination of the far south CHA development after her husband died of cancer in 1969 at the age of 41. She contacted public agencies and demanded information about the toxic waste dumps, landfills, incinerators and refineries that ringed the community, and when she didn’t get answers, she kept demanding.
Johnson – who also pioneered green jobs with training for Altgeld residents in environmental remediation — is the precursor of Van Jones and Green For All, Jerome Ringo (of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley) and the Apollo Alliance; and locally, of groups like Blacks In Green and Little Village Environmental Organization. And People for Community Recovery continues its work under Johnson’s daughter, Cheryl.
Also part of her legacy is the ban on landfills on the Southeast Side, a long process initiated by Mayor Harold Washington after he toured Altgeld with Johnson in 1986. In 2004 Waste Management was barred from accepting refuse in the last active landfill in the area.
When Martin Luther King Jr. launched the Poor People’s Campaign shortly before his assassination in 1968, it was in response to economic conditions that would look good today.
Unemployment in 1968 was 4 percent, 7 percent for African-Americans. It’s double that or worse now, writes Isaiah J. Poole of the Center for America’s Future.
Poole calls for reigniting King’s drive for economic action, offering quotes from a sermon delivered by the civil right leader days before his assassination – quotes that ring true today.
Citing the Declaration of Independence, King declared that unemployment threatens its core commitments: “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
To a political establishment that has abandoned action on the jobs crisis while it funds overseas wars, King declares: “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”
Poole rejects “the constrictions on today’s political debate, which limit our horizons to variations of the discredited conservative notion that giving business what it wants — few rules to follow and even fewer taxes to pay — will lead to a revitalized middle-class America, when in fact we’ve already done this for more than a decade and what we have gained is a shrinking middle class caught in a race to the bottom.”
The Poor Peoples’s Campaign was necessary, King said, “because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.”
Today, “we could use a massive, dramatic confrontation on behalf of the more than 27 million who are unemployed or underemployed today,” Poole writes. “The spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. would certainly be in its midst.”
A year ago we noted King’s final campaign was on behalf of public service workers in Memphis. A year later, attacks on public workers and their unions have ratcheted up considerably.
The Progressive points out that this shifts the blame for the nation’s economic problems away from the powerful and further weakens the meager recovery now underway.
Labor Notes argues it’s based on a number of myths –that public employees make more money than their private sector counterparts, that private enterprise is more efficient, that taxes are too high (the problem is really that tax system is unfair, with working families taxed more heavily than the very rich).
It’s the latest phase of a largely successful, decades-long drive to neutralize unions by severely limiting workers’ right to organize.
The latest manifestation in Illinois is what Labor Notes describes as a billionaires’ attack on teachers unions. In a sign of bad times, Democratic leaders like Mayor Daley and Rahm Emanuel have endorsed limits on teachers’ strikes, though the last strike in Chicago was decades ago. Emanuel also wants to cut pensions for existing city workers, although the state constitution bars such action.
Mike Klonsky points out that Emanuel’s “I’ll Hammer Teachers” program ignores the real problems facing Chicago schools and makes it much tougher to attact good teachers. (Miguel del Valle has spoken up forcefully in defense of teachers.)
Ambitious candidates may chase the latest wave of political opportunism, but Martin Luther King – who once vowed to “fight laws which curb labor” — would advise them to get on the right side of the arc of the universe, the one that bends toward justice.