Thousands gathered Sunday at St. Michael the Archangel church on the city's South Side to celebrate and pay tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and also make a call for economic and racial equality. The two-hour-long rally saw dozens of speeches from community organizers, local politicians and others who tied Dr. King's legacy to today's struggles for economic justice.
Dr. King had a dream and it had a fundamental economic component to it, said Rev. Dwight Gardner, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church. During his keynote address, Gardner went on to say, “Dr. King had a radical vision that racial equality cannot be achieved without economic equality and that an economy that leaves tens of millions of people of all races struggling to make ends meet must be restructured.”
George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, told the standing-room-only audience that “mass inequality” was “no accident,” but is instead “the result of a masterful forty-year plan” by CEO's and right-wing politicians.
“Their agenda 40 years ago was simple. Reduce wages and worker protections, cut taxes for corporations, deregulate industry and privatize anything and everything. Those were their goals,” said Goehl.
The event, called “Hope in an Age of Crisis: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Radical Vision for Economic Equality,” was a chance for speakers and groups to make the connection between critical local and national issues, including income inequality, political corruption, tax cuts for large corporations, climate change and overcrowding prisons.
“We are increasingly turning into a society which in the words of Dr. King, takes necessities away from the many to give luxuries to the few,” said Toby Chow, an organizer with the People's Lobby and SOUL. “Is this the kind of world you want to live in,” he asked the packed church audience, which shouted back “No!”
The event's speakers laid out the issues they say struggling people face, and also offered solutions. Several politicians attending the event, including Illinois Reps. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) and Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest), Illinois House Majority leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), and a number of Chicago aldermen, were called up to the podium and asked if they would support several bills and other measures making their way through the state legislature and city council.
“We're not just celebrating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Currie. "We are taking his agenda, we are making it our own and we are making sure that it is the agenda that will work for our families, for our children and our grandchildren.”
Currie, Mitchell and Davis all said 'yes' when asked if they would introduce and support a measure that would require companies receiving state subsidies to pay higher wages to employees. “I do not believe that it is radical to say that a worker should be given a wage that befits their work,” Currie said.
Chicago aldermen were asked if they would support an ordinance modeled after state legislation, introduced by Ald. Will Burns (4th), that would require publicly-traded corporations doing business with the city to disclose basic tax information. Half a dozen aldermen, including Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Pat Dowell (3rd), pledged to support the measure.
“At a time when we're asking people in Chicago to do without, and when we talk about shared sacrifice at the same moment large corporations come to our city and hold us hostage for tax breaks, we have to say, 'you know what, you have to be fair.' We need to know whether or not you're contributing to the public wealth,” said Burns.
Organizers with the People's Lobby and IIRON, the groups that sponsored the event, also called on community leaders and politicians to work to reduce what they say is the "mass incarceration" of non-violent offenders. Calling incarceration for drug offenses and other non-violent crimes “the new Jim Crow,” the groups say people of color are being disproportionately affected by the phenomenon. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle took to the stage and pledged to work with the groups to reduce reliance on pre-trial detention in Cook County jail, along with other measures to reduce mass incarceration.
“We're going to need your help and support to do this,” Preckwinkle said. “We need to focus on fairness and access to justice – social justice, rather than banging our fists on the table and saying, 'we need to be tough on crime.'”