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Remarks at Martin Luther King Unity March and Rally

January 20, 2014
Remarks at Martin Luther King Unity March and Rally

Durham, NC - I’m happy to be with you once again for this noontime King Birthday Celebration in Durham. I had a good excuse for missing last year – the inauguration of Barack Obama for his second term as President of the United States! And this year I must admit I’m spread somewhat more thinly than before, with a new seven-county Fourth District. The long King holiday weekend has taken me from the state employees service in Raleigh, to service projects with young people and the MLK march in Fayetteville, the Chapel Hill/UNC dinner with Rep. Larry Hall as speaker, and the Triangle-wide Prayer Breakfast this morning.

And now, to culminate the observance, the Durham Unity March and Rally, which has always been my personal favorite! This has been a time each year for us to look back and be grateful for the man and the movement that liberated our country from the divisive and destructive practices of segregation and discrimination, from the poison of racism and prejudice. But it also is a time to take stock of the challenges that remain, to re-vision and re-commit ourselves to the prophetic call to let justice “roll down like waters.”

In looking back on the remarks I’ve made on this occasion in past years, I’ve been reminded of the challenges that were on our hearts and minds – the earthquake’s devastation in Haiti, the horrific shootings in Tuscon, the pain of our greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. This year, we are painfully aware that, although we are slowly making our way out of that recession, the recovery is radically uneven and far too many of our fellow-Americans are being left behind. As the President said last month, the basic bargain that has animated the middle class and those striving to join the middle class – that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead – had started to unravel long before the recession began. He cites some shocking trends over the 35 years since he graduated from high school:

Our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of that growth has flowed to the fortunate few. The top 10 percent no longer takes one-third of our income – it now takes half! Whereas in the past the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more. And meanwhile, a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country.

Now, in a democracy, we count on our government to ensure the conditions whereby that basic bargain can be restored and maintained. And indeed, as we observe the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, we realize the array of measures and safeguards – from the minimum wage to community empowerment, from unemployment insurance to tide people over, to Head Start and school lunches to provide a healthy start in life, to Social Security and Medicare, to provide dignity in old age – that have resulted from the determination of Americans to make politics and government the instruments of our common purpose.

But simply to enumerate that list is to remind ourselves that almost all of it is under attack, under threat as we speak, in Washington and in Raleigh. All too often in fact, public policy has served, not to mitigate widening inequality, but to make it worse. As the President noted, powerful lobbies have pressed “to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage. As a trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest, while investments that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither.”

So on Martin Luther King Day, 2014, we have a great deal of work to do. Whether it’s the erosion of the minimum wage or the elimination of North Carolina’s Earned Income Tax Credit, the discontinuation of unemployment insurance when there is still only one job for every four people looking for work, the denial by our state of Medicaid benefits to 400,000 people who desperately need them, the resurgence of food insecurity and hunger even as the Tea Party crusades to take $40 billion from Food Stamps, the slashing of public education and devaluing of the teaching profession, the erection of new barriers to the right to vote – we’ve had the wake-up call, and we know we must protest and mobilize for the fight of our lives.

What better time to rededicate ourselves than on the day we honor one who declared he would never adjust or accommodate “to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.” Let us resolve today that we too will not “adjust”: we will capture a fresh vision of “liberty as justice for all” and, as Dr. King taught us, join together to achieve it.