Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
Few Americans would describe the era we live in as a moment of comfort.
Challenge for most Americans is undeniable. We face the deepest recession since the great depression, bringing with it unemployment for nearly one in ten citizens and desperate levels of poverty. The Census Bureau this week confirmed that an additional four million Americans had fallen beneath the poverty line last year, reaching a total of 43 million - or a staggering one in seven - citizens. And those suffering the highest rates of poverty are our children - more than 15 million of them.
And controversy is in no short supply. While Main Street and Side Street Americans are struggling, Wall Street and its financial firms that were the cause of this very recession, are back to making record profits, the return of the "haves and have mores" causing justifiable anger from all ends of the political spectrum as the top 0.1% have 976 times more wealth than the bottom 90%. And in Washington, this "do something" Congress - determined to challenge some of the nation's worst afflictions - has instead of inspiring unity, ignited the fiercest political battles in decades: over healthcare rights, financial reform and more fundamental issues like the attacks on the 14th Amendment and the manufactured threat of "anchor babies."
A vocal minority, the Tea Party, has captured the psyche of some of the most disaffected, pessimistic citizens by looking back, not forward. The Tea Party surge, picking up key victories in many Republican primaries, give it the false imprimatur of a movement embracing civil discourse. Sadly, the racist and bigoted elements within the Tea Party - elements my organization has led in exposing - have shattered any illusion of civility. How can an organization be labeled as civil when one of its leading candidates, Carl Paladino for New York Governor, has a track record of racist emails, including one that included a doctored the picture of the President and First Lady, portraying them as a pimp and prostitute respectively?
But even putting aside their rhetoric and acknowledging their victories, it would be a mistake to believe that their agenda represents that of the majority. A recent poll proves that the citizens who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters - supporters, not just members - are more likely than not to be Republican, white, male and older than 45. Hardly a reflection of the diverse fabric of the country. No wonder, therefore, that 63% of Americans actively oppose the Tea Party Movement. This is just further proof that rabid populism does not equate to common values. Cries to restore the past will not address the kitchen table issues faced today by the majority of Americans.
So these are the challenges and controversies - political and economic - that will ultimately measure America's spirit when we look back at this era.
It is in that spirit that the NAACP is proud to be a leading partner in the 10-2-10 event in Washington, which will bring a clear agenda representing the majority of Americans. It is time for Congress to listen to the voice of the majority again. The fact that Congress is even considering more tax giveaways for the mega-rich - giveaways that will add $700 billion to the deficit our children will have to bear - tells us that the voice of the majority is not being listened to.
We are not a loud, fragmented minority looking backward. We are a strong, united majority looking forward. We are the people who answer calls at your doctors' offices, care for your parents, help prepare your tax returns, stock the shelves in your grocery stores, lay the lines for your broadband, build your cars, construct your houses, your offices. We are school administrators, teachers, parents and children, employers and union members. We are the real America - the middle class families, the working men and women, the ones who believe in a better tomorrow and want to build a better future for our families.
And we say enough. With so many challenges facing our communities - rising poverty, continued injustice, the need for real immigration reform - Congress must listen to our majority. The loud voices of the Tea Party Movement cannot eclipse the moral commitment of the Main Street middle.
So, on 10-2-10, as we unite in the nation's backyard, it is my hope that we can honor and live up to King's measure of the man - and the country - in challenge and controversy. In writing those words, King was offering up a challenge of his own. Together, we will meet its measure.