How Martin Luther King Jr. Still Inspires

WE CELEBRATE DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING’S BIRTHDAY today, and most of the press will focus on his achievements as the creator and leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement. You can count on nearly every news outlet showing footage of the “I Have A Dream” speech.

But it’s another speech I’d like to focus on.

“Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life?”

As a nation, and as a planet, we continue to struggle with poverty. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from December 11, 1964, King talked about the worldwide state of poverty and its effect on his own nation:

“A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist. This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves. Take my own country for example. We have developed the greatest system of production that history has ever known. We have become the richest nation in the world. Our national gross product this year will reach the astounding figure of almost 650 billion dollars. Yet, at least one-fifth of our fellow citizens – some ten million families, comprising about forty million individuals – are bound to a miserable culture of poverty.

In a sense the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment.

In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity. Glistening towers of glass and steel easily seen from their slum dwellings spring up almost overnight. Jet liners speed over their ghettoes at 600 miles an hour; satellites streak through outer space and reveal details of the moon.”

He then calls for an “all-out war on poverty,” and says

“There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed – not only its symptoms but its basic causes. This, too, will be a fierce struggle, but we must not be afraid to pursue the remedy no matter how formidable the task.”

His words that day were a preview of what would motivate and occupy him in the last four years of his life: anti-war campaigning for Vietnam, and economic reform.

His Poor People’s Campaign was not the triumph of the March on Washington—but imagine if it had been.

It is easy to look back on those times and wax nostalgically about activism and protest. But the fact is that many problems King confronted—war and poverty—remain and dog us today.

He would want us to continue the work he started by speaking out and organizing, and taking small steps of resistance against the forces that prevent change and reform.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It’s also the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. And the beginning of the next four years in America’s democratic process.

What can each of us do today to improve the lives of others?

Read more about the Poor People’s Campaign in these two programs from NPR and PBS. Here is King’s speech about the war, Beyond Vietnam.

You should follow me on Twitter here.

Syria’s Voice and Conscience: Omar Amiralay

HE NEVER SHIED AWAY from confronting and exposing the social and economic injustices of his home. Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay was Syria’s voice and conscience.

Amiralay was a longtime pro-democracy supporter; in 2000, he was a signatory of the Damascus Declaration, which led to the “Damascus Spring.” When he died this past February, he left a legacy of documentary films that exposed and confronted poverty and oppression.

Amiralay’s career in documentary filmmaking spanned the five decades of the ruling Ba’ath Party. As the protests of the last month show no signs of abating, we can look to Amiralay’s films as a guide to what has shaped Syria and how her people have arrived at this point in their history.

This clip from Amiralay’s third film, “The Chickens,” documents how peasants suffered after the government’s failed farming ventures:

Amiralay did not only focus on his home country. His later films addressed social movements and activism in Yemen, Lebanon, and Egypt. This essay is a good overview of his groundbreaking and far-reaching work.

Watch more clips of Omar Amiralay’s on this YouTube channel. For more on Omar Amiralay, including interviews with the filmmaker, visit ArteEast.

12 Stories of Gender Justice in Bangladesh

THERE IS THE “BAREFOOT LAWYER” WHO FIGHTS INJUSTICE DOOR-TO-DOOR, and the wife—and husband—teams who turned around opinions about what equality means for women and men.

These and other gender justice pioneers are profiled in “Courage in the Heart,” a series of short films about young women in Bangladesh who are demanding greater rights for themselves.

The young women in these films all started out as survivors of human rights abuses, but today are educators, activists, and agents of change in their community. The “Courage in the Heart” project directly addresses the gender inequality of Bangladesh’s patriarchal social system, in which women have inferior status, and shows how empowered communities can improve women’s lives.

The stories you’ll hear demonstrate how far gender equality still has to go in places like Bangladesh.

Yet you’ll also see how education and community organizing can make a difference, especially in the poorest communities in the developing world.

The films were produced by BRAC, a development organization created and lead by Bangladeshis. BRAC works to alleviate poverty and promote gender justice and human rights in Asia, Africa, and Haiti.

Watch all the films and learn more at the project’s official site. More here about women fighting against gender violence.

3 Social Justice Books About Children To Read Now

THESE THREE BOOKS about children fall into different categories—nonfiction, Young Adult lit, and memoir—but all share unflinching, dramatic, and moving stories about what it is like for children facing injustice today.

You’ll want to read these more than once, and share them with your kids and friends:

1. This Child, Every Child This is the latest collaboration from teacher David J. Smith and illustrator Shelagh Armstrong, the team behind If the World Were a Village and If America Where a Village. Like those previous publications, This Child is a straight-up look at the disparities in the way children live around the world.

It’s a facts-driven book (“nearly 80 million children do not go to school”) but like the team’s previous work, it is eye-opening and a great tool for kids’ understanding of the world. Read an interview with David J. Smith here.

2. Between Shades of Gray Ruta Sepetys’ historical novel is about the forcible relocation of Lithuanians after the Russian invasion in 1939.

The story follows fifteen-year-old Lina, whose family is arrested and deported to Siberia.

Lina’s separation from her father, who is sentenced to death in a labor camp, forms the emotional heart of the novel.

The author is herself the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. Read the first chapter here.

3. Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal Over the course of Conor Grennan’s three-month volunteering stint at the Little Princes Orphanage, he learned most of the children were not in fact orphans, but had been trafficked. When Nepal enters civil war, Grennan is forced to leave, but vows to return and continue helping.

Little Princes is the story of how his organization, Next Generation Nepal, reunited almost 300 families with children thought lost. Read an excerpt here.

How Your Breakfast Can Feed A Dozen Children

WHAT DID YOU HAVE FOR BREAKFAST this morning? Eggs, toast, cereal, coffee? A new online calculator from the World Food Programme lets you enter what you ate, its estimated cost, and find out how many hungry children will it feed:

For example, a cheeseburger is equal to feeding 40 kids.

The online tool is called Wefeedback (a nice turn of phrase there) and instantly gives you an idea how all of us doing just a little can make a difference.

Find out more about how you can feed hungry schoolchildren.

The Dangers of Inequality in the U.S.

© University of California-Berkeley

ONE OF THE REASONS FOR THE UNREST IN THE MIDDLE EAST is high unemployment and its cousin, income inequality—the very things that are prevalant in the United States today.

Americans suffer from some of the same economic ills that drove hundreds of thousands into the streets to demand change this year. But Americans don’t like to confront inequality in their daily lives, even though it affects each of their lives (unless you’re in that magic top one-hundredth of one percent).

We all feel it. We know what’s going on. Will it finally drive us into the streets, as it has in Wisconsin?

Here are some facts about inequality in the U.S. today:

    Difference in the hourly earnings of high-paid and low-paid employees: 364% (Source).

    CEOs during the 1960s earned on average $42 for every $1 earned by wage workers. Today, that ratio is $344:1. (Source).

    “It’s the Inequality, Stupid” explains everything that’s wrong with America in eight charts: for example, Wall Street profits up 702 percent, while unemployment is up 102 percent. (Source).

    Learn more: 20 facts about inequality from the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality.

The Challenges Facing Women Veterans

THIS GRAPH SHOWS THE NUMBER OF HOMELESS in the United States. You’ll see that the second largest group is “veterans”:


Image source: Many Eyes. Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, HUD

Veterans make up more than double the rate of homeless in the general population. What you don’t see in the graph is that the number of homeless female veterans has nearly doubled over the past decade.

In addition to housing insecurity, women veterans face other challenges, including caring for young children. Women veterans also need specialized health services to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and military sexual trauma.

Here’s where to learn more, take action, and help:

Hear what women veterans have to say about what it’s like to be homeless

Read more about the challenges facing women veterans as they transition to civilian life from The Business and Professional Women’s Foundation

American Women Veterans is an all-volunteer organization supporting women veterans

Swords to Ploughshares is a nonprofit group providing health issue services

The Longoria Affair: A Battle For Civil Rights

SIXTY YEARS AGO IN THREE RIVERS, TEXAS, the body of Pvt. Felix Longoria, a Mexican-American soldier, was returned home after his death in the Pacific theater during WWII. But the only funeral home in town refused to hold a wake for Longoria. His family was told: “The whites wouldn’t like it.”

“The Longoria Affair,” directed by John J. Valdez and airing November 9 as part of PBS’s “Independent Lens” series, explores the history of this incident. It tells the story not only of the injustice against Longoria, but frames the beginning of Mexican-American activism and a new battle for civil rights:

The film details the relationship between activist and WWII veteran Dr. Hector P. Garcia, the founder of the American G.I. Forum, and a local politician, newly-elected senator Lyndon B. Johnson.

The film explores the political relationship between the two men, especially as it relates to Johnson’s political dance around the issues of civil rights, and the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964:

The Longoria Affair premieres on PBS’ Independent Lens tonight at 10 PM EST. PBS will stream the entire documentary starting November 10 through November 16. The Spanish version of the film will be available to stream starting November 11.

Rio’s Favelas As Seen By Brazilian Photojournalist and Artist


All images © Pedro Lobo

PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE FAVELAS IN RIO DE JANEIRO are by now very familiar: the corrugated iron walls jutting out in a stacked jigsaw of poverty, the city’s poorest denizens eeking out a living as best they can. What new insight or perspective can we find inside these neighborhoods?

Favelas: Architecture of Survival seeks to look more closely at what those walls mean to the people who live behind them.

Brazilian photographer Pedro Lobo applies a background in architecture to his photography, focussing on how people create homes and are also influenced by the forms they construct.

One of his other major works, Imprisoned Spaces, for example, examines the interiors of prisons in Medellín, Colombia, and São Paulo.

Lobo’s work is currently on exhibit in Charleston, South Carolina, where he is artist-in-residence at both the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and College of Charleston.

View more selections from the portfolio on Lobo’s official website.

The Unseen Faces Behind The News: One Photographer’s Journey

“THE POWER OF IMAGES TO CHALLENGE ONE’S REALITY, and hopefully evoke change” is how Australian photographer Conor Ashleigh describes his work. His photos focus on underreported environmental, political and social issues.

In “The Brick Kilns of Bhaktapur,” Ashleigh documents the exploitation of child labor at a rapidly growing brick production center outside Kathmandu, where children as young as 12 work for less than $2US a day:

Image: © Conor Ashleigh

The story of how coffee is grown and harvested is the subject of Ashleigh’s story, “The Journey of Coffee in Timor-Leste.” In this photo, factory workers sort coffee in Dili:

Image: © Conor Ashleigh

And earlier this year Ashleigh traveled to Al-Arish, the closest city to the the Rafah crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt. Ashleigh’s personal essay, “My Journey to Gaza,” is a thoughtful reflection on his experiences documenting life in-and-around Gaza, including the tunnels:

Image: © Conor Ashleigh

You can view these portfolios, as well as photographs taken in Papua New Guinea, India, and Australia, at Conor Ashleigh’s website. Read an interview with Ashleigh at Green Left Weekly.