Keeping MLK's Green Legacy Alive

Today they'd be called "green-collar jobs" cleaning up the environment. Back then, the workers who performed those jobs were just garbage men. And they were treated like garbage. Martin Luther King, Jr. died fighting to make their green-collar jobs be good jobs.

On the 40th anniversary of King's assassination, the green-collar jobs group Green for All is bringing people from all over the country to Memphis, Tennessee April 4-6 for The Dream Reborn, a celebration of the life of Dr. King -- and a call to create millions of good green-collar jobs as a pathway out of poverty.

The Dream Reborn will "bring together a generation of new leaders who are taking on the chief moral obligation of the 21st century, building a green economy for all."

The gathering will dramatize the message that "today we must respond with the same courage to perhaps the biggest crises our species has ever collectively faced, global warming."

We believe that if Dr. King were with us today, he would be working to build a green economy -- strong enough to lift people out of poverty and restore hope to America. He would be standing with those communities that have been locked out of the last century's pollution-based economy. And he would indeed be working to ensure that ALL our people, the entire beloved community, is included in the emerging clean and renewable economic vision.

As Michael Honey shows in his magisterial new book Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign (New York: Norton, 2007), by 1967 Dr. King was calling for a "radical reordering of our nation's priorities." He proposed to match civil rights and voting rights laws with laws creating jobs or income. Government redistribution would abolish poverty by providing training for displaced black workers while shoring up their incomes, so that they could become self-sufficient citizens who could work their way out of poverty. The program would stimulate the economy and cut poverty-induced crime, drugs, and imprisonment. The money squandered on the Vietnam war could end poverty in a decade.

Green for All, a new organization created by local green-job organizers around the country and sponsor of The Dream Reborn, brilliantly updates King's vision. Its mission is "to help build a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty."

By advocating for a national commitment to job training, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in the emerging green economy - especially for people from disadvantaged communities -- we fight both poverty and pollution at the same time. We are committed to securing one billion dollars by 2012 to create "green pathways out of poverty" for 250,000 people in the United States, by greatly expanding federal government and private sector commitments to "green-collar" jobs.

Van Jones, an organizer in Oakland, California and one of the initiators of Green for All, says he was getting burned out going to court hearings and funerals for kids in his community. Then, I just had this epiphany in mind and said, you know, these kids in America need green jobs, not jails . . . . We want to lift a quarter million people out of poverty into the green economy by creating green-collared job training, employer incentives and entrepreneur opportunities. As in King's vision, training and good jobs could give disadvantaged young people a "pathway out of poverty."

If you teach a young person how to put up solar panels, that kid is on their way to becoming an electrical engineer. They could join the United Electrical Workers Union. If you teach a kid how to weatherize a building, double-pane the glass so that it doesn't leak so much energy, that kid is on his way to becoming a glazer that can join a union.

The green-jobs vision is working its way into the political mainstream. At the end of 2007, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Green Jobs Act that provides $125 million for workforce training programs that target veterans, displaced workers, at-risk youth and individual families who fall 200 percent under the poverty line. Democratic candidates Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have both called for the creation of millions of green-collar jobs to combat global warming. Even Republican John McCain says he is willing to invest in research and development of green technology, calling it the "path to restore the strength of America's economy."

Martin Luther King understood that good jobs in the service of community needs could be the basis for ending poverty and creating equality for America's poor and oppressed. As he arrived in Memphis to support the sanitation workers' strike, King asserted that the person who picks up garbage is as essential to the health of society as the physician, and that the city's sanitation workers "work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community." As we face the global catastrophe of global warming, nothing could do more for the "well-being of the total community" that creating a path out of poverty through jobs that protect the well-being of the total planet.

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