Another MLK Day and Still Going Through the Motions

01/16/2016 03:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2016

Credit Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram

Against a national backdrop of lawlessness and racial insensitivity during worship, at routine traffic stops, on college campuses, in elementary schools and the courts, Chicago, in addition to being recognized as the "false-confession" capital, has earned the reputation as the "dash-cam" cover up and "evidence withholding" capital, too.

New and impending revelations of foul play, citizen outrage, resignation demands, finger-pointing blame games, lies and community infighting distract us from zeroing in on what really got us here: No sustained interest in addressing poverty. So, as we commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King this weekend, the civil rights movement brings us back to core strategies that still apply if tactically adjusted for the millennium struggle for racial and economic justice.

In 1967, Dr. King keynoted the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's annual convention created to help local activist groups better coordinate. In delivering Where Do We Go from Here, King compared the chronology of racism in the South, with the 10-year history of the SCLC and its record of affecting change.

It turns out King was prophetic in diagnosing today how black marginalized citizens were denied government protection (law enforcement) and access to services (due process); exploited by businesses with large African-American consumer bases; and victimized by efforts to undermine viable solutions.

Chicago is emblematic of the moral crimes of government. As justifiable cynicism sets in, the optics of events such as the Laquan-gate shooting and cover-up, feed skepticism about how and for whom government works. In prosperous neighborhoods, government is subservient to it residents. In poor neighborhoods residents, as a rule, have been subservient to and, continue to be exploited by government.

"Policies of community development are being replaced with policies of community containment,"

according to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, King's protégé.

"The absence of a domestic Marshall Plan has been replaced with martial law."

Indeed, rather than developing poor communities and creating real opportunities for residents, the focus has been on control, and in the process, government continues to be insensitive to the nuances of poverty, and the role race disparities continue to play in Chicago's and our nation's body politic.

In highlighting responsibility for promoting and maintaining progress, King discussed how, at one point, the African-American plight was practically invisible and irrelevant to larger society but became a reckoning force because of two distinct strategies.

Asserting dignity and worth. Silence, in the context of oppression, is complicity. Refusal to call out corruption, passively defends it. Faith-based and community-based organizations that stood sheepishly silent as King advocated for and mobilized marginal people brings to mind hundreds of community-based organizations, silently on the sidelines today perceiving any formal acknowledgement of corruption and oppression as "bad for business" in Chicago and elsewhere.

"There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular," King said, "but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right."

Today, King's sentiments falls on deaf ears, as some community and faith-based organizations have expressed apprehension about supporting the neo-civil rights movement represented by Black Lives Matter and affiliated groups. The truth is some community and faith-based leaders wear one face in front of their constituencies and another to the powers that be.

King knew well that direct action, in the form of organized protests, rallies, marches, and now, social media, raises awareness of and applies pressure to the issue cheaper, faster, and stronger than ever before. Although a flawed school of thought deems protests irrelevant, it is clear that, when executed correctly, with legally formalizing and paying for the goals of direct action, protest is still effective. In his speech, Dr. King called on African-Americans to make "our government write new laws to alter some of the cruelest injustices that affected us." There needs to be an update.

The 1963 March on Washington applied pressure to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Organized protests forced the arrest of police officer Jason Van Dyke. The Selma Civil Rights marches led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Rallies forced the dismissal of Chicago police Supt. Garry McCarthy. Various marches forced a mea culpa from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and members of the Chicago city council.

Direct action affirms the dignity of the marginalized. This is the essence of the Black Lives Matter movement, an explicit response to the implicit behavior of government that lately gives every indication these lives don't.

Voting sustains such action. The civil rights movement removed the legal barriers to voting, but over time the weight of persistent poverty has convinced many potential voters of color to opt out. Meanwhile, efforts are being made to repeal the hard-won Voting Rights Act of 1965, making opting out a permanent condition.

Chicago has about 1.4M registered voters, but the turnout for the 2015 mayoral runoff was 41 percent. Voter turnout averaged 38 percent in Chicago wards where a majority of the population is African-American. Voter abstention in those wards was 62 percent, a disgrace.

Democracy without citizen participation is a dictatorship mired in government tyranny and community oppression with a cannibalistic effect. As a result, and as we have seen, the well to do get democracy; the not doing so wells and those associated get urban tyranny. To be sure, while African Americans may be legally free, the adverse impact of bad policy keeps the scales of economic and social equality tilted against the communities in which many reside.

Youth are poised to take center stage in bringing democracy back to marginalized communities. In the same way the SCLC was created to coordinate activities of protest organizations, youth can go beyond protesting the appalling Laquan McDonald situation to be trained to lead voting registration drives, and/or start their own political action committees with mentorship from other local veteran organizations to assist with coordination.

For example, every Chicago public school senior class president could coordinate an annual voter registration drive at their respective school. Students could create a citywide CPS Student PAC as well. Students would meet community service hour obligations through participation. Civil and fraternal groups could co-organize voter registrations drives and coordinate voting efforts.

Along with that, the Illinois state legislature could extend Illinois House bill 4025 mandating Illinois high school students take six semesters of civic education-specific classes, rather than one semester already mandated.

Area financial institutions could collaboratively underwrite the cost to meet their CRA requirements. There are currently 189 high schools in the Chicago Public School district with 112,000 high school students. Imagine if this were done with every senior class for the next years, in communities with high concentrations of poverty?

Absent continued protest and solutions to acquire political power, the commemorative King Day and Black History Month "celebrations," while laudable, will, arguably now more than ever, serve as nothing more than window dressing, obscuring a continuing and discriminating campaign of economic and democratic exclusion.