20 January 2014

The Next Frontier, Then And Now

Today, Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday is being commemorated.  I am thinking now about how he spent the last days of his life working to help the sanitation workers of Memphis to gain better pay and working conditions.  I am also thinking about the speech he gave on 4 April 1967—exactly one year before he was gunned down.  In it, he denounced the Vietnam War and the ways in which the United States was turning into the kind of repressive colonial power against which it fought to gain its independence.

Nearly half a century later, his words and actions remain relevant, if for different reasons than they were when they were new or, say, twenty or thirty years ago.  I concur with those people who see them as evidence that he was turning his attention toward economic inequalities and how power—whether military, political, capitalist or corporate—is used to initiate and reinforce such inequities.  Interestingly, Malcolm X was turning his interests toward those very issues before he was shot to death in the Audubon Ballroom.  Some have posited that it’s a reason why the widows of the two men became allies in the struggle for social and economic justice as well as close personal friends.  Having met Sister Betty Shabazz, however briefly, a couple of years before she died, I would accept such an explanation.

Whatever their motivations, I think she and Coretta Scott King offer valuable lessons for transgender people.  I am not the first person to say that our state is about what that of gays and lesbians was in the 1970’s or nearly all African-Americans until the 1950’s.  The gains made by the Civil Rights movement did not improve the lot of all people of color; that is not a fault of the work Matin, Coretta, Malcolm or Betty did.  While it’s great that my hometown—New York City—and some other jurisdictions have human-rights laws that include language to specifically include transgender and other gender-variant people, such laws—as Martin and Malcolm discovered—will not, by themselves, bring about social justice.  That is because they cannot bring about economic justice.  They might say that a would-be employer cannot discriminate on the basis of race, gender or other qualities, but they do not address the conditions that put us at a disadvantage when we apply for those jobs—or that relegate us to inferior jobs at lower pay and longer periods without jobs and, in some cases, housing. 

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