Kansas City AFSC with the SCLC of Greater Kansas City organized the 2014 annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day community forum. This year, AFSC again lifted up Dr. King's call for a transformation of our economic system with the forum, "Waking from the Nightmare: Renewing Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign." The theme reinforced the theme of the King Holiday Mass Celebration, which took place later that evening on the MLK holiday.
AFSC and SCLC brought together a variety of insightful panel members who stimulated a lively discussion with the 200 audience members attending the event at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, KCMO. Panel members included: Councilman Michael Brooks, President, Concerned Clergy of GKC; Rev. Antoine Lee, Historic East Neighborhoods Coalition; Janet Moss, community activist; Terrance Wise, Workers Organizing Committee of KC; Michael D. Bates, NAACP-KCMO Executive Committee member; and Maria Kline, President of Juniper Gardens tenants’ association, KCK. (Click this link for video of the MLK Forum.)
Ira Harritt, AFSC KC Program Coordinator, introduced the forum thanking SCLC, the cosponsors and panel members for their support and participation. He explained, "This event is not only to stimulate your thinking and ideas but to but to inspire action. And give you opportunities to put your concerns to work."
He began with words Dr. King shared in a speech just weeks before he was assassinated:
Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality… For we know now that it isn't enough to integrate lunch counters.… What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?
Rev. Sam Mann, SCLC KC Board Chairman, expressed his happiness that the SCLC board had selected the "Rebirth of the Poor People's Campaign" as the theme of the Mass Celebration. He shared a story about Dr. King that took place eight days before he was assassinated in Memphis.
He was in Harry Belafonte's house and they were talking about the Poor People’s campaign and Dr. King was clear that economic justice was something that had to be dealt with before we could move on. And so there was a heated argument between Andrew Young and Dr. King. According to Harry Belafonte, it was so heated that Belafonte turned to Dr. King and said 'Doc, what’s wrong with you,' because he sensed that something was wrong. (This was eight days before King went to Memphis.) Dr. King turned to Harry Belafone and said, 'I am afraid that I am integrating my people into a burning building.' And that burning building was the American economic system that we know as capitalism.
Rev. Lee commented:
The poor have always been with us, but there has always been a poor people’s movement... How can you think you have a democratic society when 40 percent of the wealth is held up by the 1 percent of the entire country? And so until you can speak to the powers that be to help them understand their moral obligation that’s woven into what it means to be a decent human being—that is to share the wealth we receive…. I don’t know if people realize that they live amongst the most impoverished right here in the 3rd district in Kansas City. What we really need to do is get boots on the ground and call it like it is. We live in a segregated community. Segregation is still a large part of our existence. …But if we are going to talk about a poor people’s movement we need to be a little bit reluctant to continue to use language of separation of race, because a poor people’s movement really has to be a people’s movement. We have to work together with unifying interests and we have to realize the thing that binds us together is humanity and common decency. We need to speak to the moral fiber of our community.
Terrance Wise, a fast food worker and a leader on the Workers Organizing Committee of Kansas City, offered an inspiring and moving description of the organizing being done by fast food workers:
"It's fitting that we are here talking about Dr. King and the rebirth of the Poor people’s campaign. The night before we went on strike for the first time and made history here in Kansas City, we held a mass meeting here in Kansas City at this very same church and I sat with Rev. C. T. Vivian, a close friend of Dr. King, and we talked, went over what it would take … it would take direct nonviolent action to bring our cause to the forefront of people’s conscience here in Kansas City and across the nation...
I am the father of three girls… they’re in the audience… I've been working in fast food and retail for 16 years , my entire working life. The fast food industry, ladies and gentlemen, is a 200 billion dollar industry, that’s billion with a “B.” I work at Burger King where I’ve been for nine years, and I make $9.40 an hour. And I also work at Pizza Hut where I’ve been for three years and I make $7.50 an hour. There’s no health care, no benefits, no retirement plans. These are the bad jobs of today. Like workers stood up many years ago—auto, sanitation workers, where Dr. King fought for and with in Memphis right before he lost his life. Those were the bad jobs of yesteryear. These are the bad jobs of today.
Those jobs did not magically turn into good jobs overnight. People put boots on the ground, they stood up and they fought to make bad jobs good jobs.
Marie Kline was our final panel member:
We are living in a rich city and country … we shouldn’t be suffering… but most of all how many black children have killed each other? How many mothers have suffered? And we’re putting them through this routine of putting them in the ground and then we go back. It did not take my children, but I knew that once I got my children on their way, I had to be the mother to the other children... I have marched. I have lost my home. I have went to jail and my children have went to jail. It’s all about no children should be left out and our children have been left out.
Panel members' comments were followed by comments and questions from the audience, which raised additional issues and insights. Discussion ended at 5 p.m. due to the Mass Celebration's schedule, but attendees stayed to visit information tables of social change organizations and to speak further in small groups.
Watch the speeches:
AFSC thanks all of the co-sponsors and tabling organizations including: AdHoc Group Against Crime; Concerned Clergy of GKC; Jobs Now! Coalition; MO Jobs with Justice; NAACP-KCMO; PeaceWorks; PROMO; Urban Summit-KC, Workers Organizing Committee of KC, Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Legal Aid of Western Missouri. And thanks to Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church for hosting the event.