Last Monday, 28 August, marked 60 years since the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) delivered the famous 1963 speech, I Have a Dream. The resounding words were ingrained into the hearts and minds of my generation worldwide, and I clearly remember how at elementary school we were encouraged to memorise and recite the text. Here in St. Martin, we can see MLK’s face painted on the walls in town, one school is named after him and some of my colleagues quote his lines in their email signatures. We remember him and we remember the dream.
It is worthwhile recalling the context in which the speech was given and not forget the moment it represented – a wave of protests against racial segregation, war, poverty and social inequalities culminating in an estimated 250.000-strong march on Washington for jobs and freedom at the Lincoln Memorial. The slogan “for Jobs and Freedom” was chosen because the demonstrators understood that freedom does not last without the material conditions to sustain it. What is freedom without proper healthcare, education, adequate housing, jobs and decent remuneration?
MLK too understood that the fight against structural racism must go hand-in-hand with the struggle against all types of discrimination and injustices, not only the plight of African Americans but all working people. Remember that when MLK was assassinated five years later, in 1968, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support a garbage collectors strike for decent wages and better labour conditions.
Two years after the March on Washington, in 1965, MLK united trade unions, farmers, spiritual leaders and economists to come up with a concrete proposal to remedy the ills of social inequality. Co-authored by labour unionist Asa Philip Randolph, and Gay activist Bayard Rustin, the so-called Freedom Budget was key to the civil rights movement now associated with the words I Have a Dream.
The proposal advocated for the eradication of poverty; it suggested full employment with liveable wages, fair prices and support for farmers, adequate housing and healthcare, and a progressive tax to support the freedom of the country’s citizens. The Freedom Budget was a plan to have the state intervene on behalf of the toiling masses and direct government in developing policies that ensured prosperity for all; this included care for the elderly, better wages for our teachers and free education.
In the United States, we see that 60 years after the famous speech, underemployment, poverty and racial violence continue to plague that country. Today’s generation of Americans are not living MLK’s dream. Rather, they are manifesting a capitalist nightmare, with a higher concentration of wealth in fewer hands. Socio-economic inequality is greater today than it was 60 years ago; failing physical and mental health, which more often than not is poverty-induced, has become rampant.
This condition of unfreedom is perhaps due to a long period following the March on Washington whereby many American political leaders implemented policies contradictory to the Freedom Budget. The leaders preferred to invest in war, rather into the well-being of its people.
We too remember the words of MLK here in St. Maarten and Saint-Martin. But what are our political leaders dreaming? Can we talk of freedom on St. Martin if people are working 2 to 3 jobs to survive? Are we living the dream when those qualified to study at the university are forced to work full-time in order to pursue a career? Can we be free at US $4.50 per hour?
As dependent territories of two wealthy nations who have billions to spend on war in Ukraine, can’t we demand a Freedom Budget here? Is it possible to raise the wages of public servants and the police force, making it equal to that in the Netherlands? I would say that it is not only possible but necessary. Perhaps the independistas could honour the legacy of MLK and propose a SXM Freedom Budget. Perhaps we can continue to dream as did MLK, while fighting discrimination and supporting a high standard of living for all workers on this beautiful multi-ethnic island.
Dr. Antonio Carmona Báez