When it comes to tangibly honoring great Americans, Washington tends to drag its collective feet, usually decades, before making room along the Mall for a tribute. The notable exception is the Viet Nam war memorial that was completed a mere 7 years after the war ended; the impetus to build it so quickly was the hope that it would begin to heal the hemorrhaging wound of the Viet Nam war on our society. It fulfilled that hope for the healing to begin. Directly converse to the hasty Viet Nam memorial construction, the World War II memorial wasn’t completed until 2004, almost 60 years after the war ended, even as veterans of that war were dying at an estimated rate of 1,200 per day. I believe the reason it took so long for this memorial to be built was that not only was the generation that fought the war was the greatest, it was also the quietest.
43 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorial was finally dedicated yesterday. Delayed from its original August dedication date by stubborn tropical storm Irene that wreaked havoc all the way up the eastern seaboard, yesterdays’s ceremony was a pared down version, yet even more important in light of Occupy Wall Street, which has sprung up in the last month.
Coverage of the dedication has rekindled my own memories of the civil rights movement as a child growing up in segregated Fort Worth, Texas. I was fortunately raised by parents who taught respect for all people regardless of race or religion, but was surrounded in my hometown by both overt and subtle racism. I went to segregated schools until high school; I remember Men, Ladies, and Negro restrooms at the local department store. I didn’t even know any African Americans until my school was integrated in 1967, when I suddenly went from starting forward on the basketball team to second string bench. I learned much during that period of time, but mostly that the black guys on my team were just like me, except they played basketball a hell of a lot better than me. But Lynn Washington, Otha Woodard, and others taught me how to really play ball, and I still carry some scars resulting from under-the-basket scuffles as I learned a more aggressive style of b-ball. Those years were a great experience for me, though I got much less actual game time for the rest of my short basketball career after we integrated. My fear of integration and the civil rights movement faded away as I gained maturity and perspectives of life that were not my own. I began to understand the importance of equality for all, not just those who looked like me.
Equality, though, does not concern only race and ethnic origin, however. Closely tied to racial equality is also social equality. Social justice and equality have been the common threads that have run through our culture, from our founding documents through history to today. In recent years, though, that concept has been overwhelmed by the hijacking of our political system by the influence of huge money. This influence, though, it just the latest assault on elections and democracy. Before the Supreme’s ruling on Citizens United that opened the floodgates to foreign and corporate money in elections, efforts over decades to reduce the ability of poor people and minorities to vote were common. Poll taxes, limited access to polling places, and even scarce voting machines have all been tactics to keep democratic-leaning voters away from the polls.
The financial crisis that has put millions out of work, as well as the backlash against the GOP’s war on labor unions and middle class workers, has generated a new civil rights movement, called Occupy Wall Street. It was only a matter of time that a movement like this would finally build, as joblessness has continued for a third year, and those who do have jobs have lost benefits and had their wages cut, stagnating the incomes of an entire class of Americans. Putting it in simple terms, regular folks now have virtually no voice in the current political system, and the frustration has finally boiled over. Heavy money influence in Washington has kept elected representatives from doing their jobs, instead just kicking the can down the road rather than making tough decisions to help turn the economy around and reforming our financial system to keep the same thing from happening again.
Republicans, in an all out effort to keep President Obama from earning a second term, have executed a blatant 24/7 effort to keep the economy floundering, scuttling every administration legislative effort. While the Repubs have introduced no legislation to help the economy, they have passed anti-abortion legislation 7 times in the House just this year. Dems, of course, have run for the exits, equivocating and focusing on their own donors, including those from Wall Street, watering down measures being considered that could help. The result? Our government has ground to a halt. Even procedural votes are victims of filibusters and death by amendment. The gridlock caused by party politics and corruption has overtaken all the other inefficiencies in our political system, which were already plenty. What’s changed, though, is that those being hurt by the politics and corruption have finally found their voice. Occupy Wall Street has grown from a small group protesting in New York to a worldwide movement with protests on Saturday spreading to over 900 cities. The anger is directed at the financial system, but the real issue is the stagnant global economy, high sustained unemployment, and the lack of response of our elected officials to do something that actually helps.
If Occupy Wall Street continues to grow, it will get to the point that politicians will be forced to address it. However, politicians do what they always do…Lead from the rear.
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