Detroit celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Detroit, Mich.—On Jan. 21 several hundred people came to the 16th Annual Martin Luther King Day Rally in zero degree weather and snow-clogged streets. There was no march this year! Speakers provided warm energy.

  • Autoworker Sean Crawford reminded everyone that an entire immigrant neighborhood in Detroit was flattened in 1980 for General Motors (GM) to build an automobile plant. The promised 6,000 jobs never materialized and 1,400 workers will lose their jobs when GM closes the “Poletown” plant. He emphasized the need for solidarity and class consciousness. Narrow nationalism allows corporations to pit us against each other, to them we are all the same. Since capitalism is international, “only international solidarity can beat corporate greed.” He called for all workers to unite in a general strike. A community takeover of plants would create good union jobs and other benefits for workers. With a community takeover, Detroit could become the leader of a Green New Deal.
  • Elena Herrada, writer and long-time activist, spoke on Migrant Rights. “Everything we’ve heard today is connected. You can’t talk about immigrant rights without talking about NAFTA [the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico]. The UAW tried to keep auto plants from moving to Mexico, as if Mexican workers were the problem. Workers, Mexican workers are not the problem. They don’t set wages or cross borders expecting unspeakable treachery and abuse… Why is the border permeable? Because cheap labor is wanted and needed… We need to dismantle the labor movement as we know it and the right-to-work laws in Michigan, and use this moment to build a real labor movement… We have to get rid of labor laws that protect only lawyers and top union officials… We have to fight evil laws and stop allowing the worst ideas, the lowest levels of humanity to become the decision-makers.”
  • Jonathan Roberts, a young housing activist, discussed a lawsuit against Detroit and Wayne County opposing the auctioning of 1,500 occupied tax-foreclosed homes in Detroit, and against their misuse of Federal “Hardest Hit” funds to demolish abandoned houses—instead of using the funds to keep people in their homes.
  • The keynote speaker was Gail Walker of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organizing, who warned against the widening emphasis on a sanitized “I Have A Dream” speech from Martin Luther King. That leaves out King’s development from Christian social action and gradualism in the 1930s to “freedom must be demanded” and his shift to economic and anti-Vietnam war stances. Those stands King took generated new phases of white resistance in the North. King linked his anti-war stance and his internationalism to the fight for human rights at home, eventually concluding, “something is wrong with capitalism.”

While the day’s event was largely a group of Leftists “preaching to the choir,” it is important to take seriously how people are thinking in the context of rising hatred, bigotry and military conflict. It is encouraging to hear how activists are connecting so much of what we oppose, but disheartening that there is not an ongoing coalition of activity and discussion all year. It is great to bring up class solidarity and critique capitalism, but we need to remember that the original New Deal was invented by the ruling class to stop a growing momentum for a much more radical, deeper revolutionary change in the 1930s. Is the Green New Deal any different? I would like to know what readers think.

–Susan Van Gelder

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