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Thinking of MLK, W.Va., water and a thirst for justice

[cleeng_content id=”344061864″ description=”Read it now!” price=”0.49″ t=”article”]CHARLES TOWN – I hope the water crisis in and around Charleston is over by the time we mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, but in case it’s still disrupting the most basic aspects of life for 300,000 of our fellow West Virginians, the convergence of the holiday with the suffering we see going on in much of the Mountain State could provide a wonderful chance to take to heart Dr. King’s message.

If King were still alive, he’d be turning 85 today and it’s quite possible, amid his long life of reaching out to the dispossessed, his focus now would be tuned to the depressing news coming from Charleston after a chemical leak into the Elk River and, if his body allowed, doing whatever he could to help those hurt by the Elk-pocalypse.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is today, but the federal holiday honoring him doesn’t happen until Monday.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is today, but the federal
holiday honoring him doesn’t happen until Monday.

(Friends there report brushing their teeth with coffee or Coke Zero; it’s got to feel a little like the end of the world. Another friend, a former co-worker of mine who lived in Charleston when I did, wondered why when we’re so quick to add a certain Nixon-era suffix to all scandals, this debacle hasn’t been labeled Water-gate.)

King spent his entire career fighting against not just racism, but poverty, too. The work that took him to Memphis, Tenn., in April of 1968 centered on boosting the city’s striking sanitation workers. Not exactly a high-profile cause, but the kind of day-to-day reaching out to help people in need that too many leaders too often push into the background.

It’s encouraging that in West Virginia and across the country more people are coming to see MLK Day not as another Monday off from work and school but as a time to tackle community service projects. For instance, students involved in Shepherd University’s Multicultural Leadership Team and others from the school will spend Monday at work on special projects at the Boys and Girls Club in Martinsburg.

Equally encouraging still is the way Sen. John Unger, Blue Ridge Community and Technical College Peter Checkovich and other leaders stepped up not on a “bonus” Monday off but during a regular weekend and organized efforts to get bottled water, microwaveable meals and other aid to residents in need in Kanawha and eight other counties.

But there’s also this to consider: If King hadn’t been slain outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel nearly a half-century ago, he might have succeeded in his effort to eliminate poverty, and West Virginia today would be a much different place.

In King’s book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” he advocated a straightforward way to ensure a better life for all Americans: “I am now convinced,” he wrote, “that the simplest solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

I was born in 1967, the year King’s book came out and was far into middle age before I ever heard of this movement. It’s certainly not in vogue in today’s political climate, where many politicians make the poor out to be the biggest problem our country has.

King’s thought was for our government to guarantee a financial floor – a comfortable median income – and thus give every American the psychological benefit of economic security. This would end the welfare state, eliminate class warfare. To qualify for the guaranteed income, citizens would either work in a traditional job or spend the workweek completing community service.

Economists such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman (and literally 1,000 others) endorsed the idea when it went before Congress in 1968. So did Daniel P. Moynihan, then Lyndon Johnson’s Labor Secretary. (He’d grown up in poverty in New York City and went on to serve as and later serve for decades as a U.S. Senator from New York.)

Had King’s idea prevailed, it’s likely West Virginia today would be home to fewer citizens with “Friend of Coal” bumper stickers. With grinding poverty at bay, citizens wouldn’t feel the need to express blind, blanket gratitude just to have any job, any level of income. The ultra-rich “job creators” wouldn’t hold quite the same sway.

West Virginians might also have energy left over to begin asking hard questions of lawmakers and to insist the government work first and foremost for the people. In that West Virginia, the government might have demanded more of Freedom Industries, and 300,000 West Virginians might not be longing for the day when they don’t need trucked-in bottled water to quench their thirst, get clean and make dinner.

– Christine Snyder is the Life editor of the Spirit

 

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