This Martin Luther King holiday, I attended an annual community celebration in East St. Louis that, this year, commemorated the 50th anniversary of King’s death. Its theme was “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” which is also the title of a book King published in 1967. This King holiday found the public discourse a buzz with the question of whether or not the president of the United States, Donald Trump, is a racist because of remarks he made calling Haiti along with African and Latin American countries “shitholes.” In a meeting with congress-members regarding legislation around immigration, he also expressed a preference for people from countries such as Norway to immigrate to the United States.
Many political pundits expressed outrage at the comments, and some told the stories of their families who had come from places that could have been considered “shitholes” at the time their ancestors left. The story of the United States is the story of people who had the get up and go to get up and go, searching for a better life. Trump’s grandfather was a German immigrant, and his mother was an immigrant from Scotland. However, the questions that kept coming to my mind, other than the obvious racial question, are: what is the definition of a “shithole” place? What are its characteristics? How do we know it when we see it?
Is a “shithole” place a place where poor people live? Does it lack basic infrastructure? Is there a high unemployment rate? Do young people leave because there are no decent job opportunities? Is there poor education, poor medical care, and high rates of violence because people make their living through an underground economy?
If this is the description of a “shithole” place, Trump ought to look at the states where people voted for him. He ought to concern himself about “shithole” America. The ten poorest states in the United States including the District of Columbia measured by the percent of its population who are living in poverty are: Mississippi 20.8; New Mexico 19.1; Kentucky 18.3; Arizona 18.2; West Virginia 17.7; District of Columbia 17.3; Alabama 16.8; Arkansas 16.8; Georgia 16.8; Florida 15.3. Trump carried all of these places except New Mexico and the District of Columbia. (United States Census Bureau)
East St. Louis is a poor small city. It needs infrastructure repairs. Our young people leave because there are not many good job opportunities here. They move to the suburbs or to other cities because there is not much decent housing. The underground economy thrives, and there are far too many gunshots in the night. However, we are also the City of Champions, East Boogie, and the 89 blocks. We have a great spirit of civic pride because we have produced significant figures in various aspects of human endeavor, including jazz great Miles Davis and Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee. A documentary about the championship season of the East St. Louis High School Football team – “89 Blocks” – aired recently on the Fox Sports channel.
Many people see East St. Louis as a “shithole” place. But, they would be looking with eyes that do not see its potential clearly. One reason that I believe Senator Dick Durbin was so deeply offended by Trump’s remarks is that he was reared in East St. Louis and now represents us in the United States Senate. He could recognize the vile racism of the remarks that were an insult not only to Africa, Haiti and Latin America, but were an insult to poor people all over the nation. Why did not Tom Cotton who represents Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the nation, and David Perdue of Georgia, also one of the poorest states in the nation recognize the insult? They did not recognize the insult because they were blinded by their own racism.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrated his 39th and last birthday in Atlanta with a multi-racial group of people who were in the early stages of planning a poor people’s campaign. King and the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had decided to shift its work from racial desegregation to attacking the problem of poverty. Poverty cuts across all races in America. It bares its teeth in every section of the country. King saw it as a part of the tripartite evils of America – racism, militarism, and materialism. King, one of the few leaders in America with the moral authority to bring people together across racial lines for nonviolent direct action with the aim of calling attention to and ending systemic poverty, became more of a threat.
King also understood the problem in global terms. In a speech broadcast on Canadian radio, he said:
“The developed industrial nations of the world cannot remain secure islands of prosperity in a seething sea of poverty. The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation and armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables man everywhere to live in dignity and human decency.” (“The Trumpet of Conscience”)
After King’s assassination, the Black Panther Party with its transracial appeal was also a threat and was considered by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to be perhaps the greatest internal threat to the United States of America. Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party called for power to the people – black power to black people, brown power to brown people, yellow power to yellow people, white power to white people, red power to red people. He was making the case to poor white people that they faced the same economic problems as black people and that the groups ought to work together. On December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton along with Mark Clark, another Black Panther, were brutally murdered by Chicago police officers at the behest of the FBI.
Unity is dangerous.
The main speaker for the King Day event I attended was Rev. Timothy Chambers, Sr., pastor of Truelight Baptist Church in East St. Louis. He told us that he was not going to speak about the sanitized safe King of the “I Have a Dream” speech. He reminded us that King “warned about overlooking poor folk.” Rev. Chambers told us that East St. Louis was our promised land, but that we have to be willing to do the work to fix it. He called us to self-reliance and to unity. According to Rev. Chambers, “King’s dream was about folks coming together and working together.”
When he said this, it occurred to me that “unity” is an element of community. When we think about the goal of establishing a beloved community, we often think of the “beloved” aspect of that vision. And, this is appropriate because King taught the power of Love as a force for social change. However, we do not think enough about unity. Rev. Chambers defined community as: “People of like mind coming together working for the same cause.”
The cause is the rebuilding of cities such as East St. Louis. The cause is the end of poverty and the transformation of “shithole” places into places of beauty and safety, where the people, both here in the United States and across the globe, can live the sustenance and joy of human flourishing. A unity of purpose is dangerous to those who practice divide and conquer tribal politics. If We the People ever come together across racial lines in unity to form the Beloved Community, the vile racism of ignorant people such as Trump and the sycophants who enable him will have no power, and the United States will be a more perfect union. We will live in a more peaceful world.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”