The Freedom We Seek

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt ... that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation ... And so let freedom ring ... from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
--Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is a time for those of us within the activist movements he energized to pause to reflect on King's vision of universal freedom and opportunity for all.

His dream is no less than the American dream, a dream that lives on and impels us to constantly ask ourselves the question: Does freedom ring in America today?

The answer, it seems, depends on whom you ask.

Ask Karl Rove or another Bush administration architect, or any of an increasing number of federal judges, and if you're lucky, they may take you aside and show you their blueprint for freedom -- for how to free civic and corporate America from their obligations to our nations' senior citizens, children, the poor and the sick.

Ask Henry Kravis or any one of the new private equity barons that make their fortunes buying up public companies, taking them private and making huge profits at the expense of workers and all American taxpayers. They could tell you of the freedom they have won from the tax obligations that apply to nurses, firefighters and many other American workers; from much of the S.E.C. oversight endured by their public corporate peers; and from the community accountability that would come with a business model more transparent than theirs.

Kravis and Rove and their kin embody the freedom of narrow self-interest and unfettered accumulation. But the list of those heralding this freedom is getting shorter.

Ask Paula Hall if freedom is ringing for her these days, and you'll hear what it's like to live enslaved by $250,000 of medical debt stemming from an on-the-job injury that left her husband unable to work or care for himself.

Ask the many former co-workers of Elirose Pierre-Louis who organized a union with their fellow janitors but were fired just as they thought they'd finally won real change. They'll tell you how Elirose died from a treatable illness and a lack of options.

Ask Wisly Jonatas if he heard freedom ringing when, after working his late-night shift, he walked to an empty seat for the ferry ride home ... and it cost him his job.

Ask Jim Longley if it's freedom he sees when he's sent in to shut off the power of families who work hard but have fallen behind on their soaring energy bills.

For Paula, Elirose, Wisly, Jim and countless others, working hard and playing by the rules still aren't enough to guarantee freedom or economic security in the richest democracy on earth.

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny," wrote King in 1963; he preached that oppression anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere. And by this measure, the freedom imposed by unrestrained capitalism and its social implications is not freedom at all, but rather an instrument of disunity and a symptom of social regress.

King's message and enduring witness remind us that we're all in this together and that each of us has a role to play in healing what divides us, forging a new path forward and moving freedom up the mountain. We must decide together that we will no longer wait for the wealth to trickle down, the jobs to spring forth or the tide of discrimination to dry up.

Only if we act together, can we ensure that our children don't have to protest in the streets for the civil right to basic healthcare.

Only if workers from all sectors and income brackets speak out for fairness and balance can we overcome inequality's costs and arrive at an economy that rewards work.

Only if those whose skin color spares them suspicious looks, interrogation or deportation stand with those who aren't so lucky can we make sure that another mother won't be separated from her child because of a broken immigration system.

And despite the problems that endure from King's day to today, we have reason to hope. For the first time in history, a woman, a black person and the son of a factory worker are all serious contenders for the presidency of the United States ... and there's a debate about which of their universal health plans is the best. In 2007, more than a million eligible immigrants -- more than ever before -- filed applications for U.S. citizenship. And Americans across the spectrum are giving back to their communities at historically high rates.

We've come a long way, but 40 years later the fees at the bank of justice remain unacceptably high. For King's sake, for ours and for our children's, let us work together to revive his vision of freedom rooted in solidarity. Together we can throw open the great vaults of opportunity for all.

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