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Keeping Dr. King’s Dream Alive on the Border

New America Media, Commentary, Father Michael Seifert Posted: Jan 17, 2008

Traducción al español

Editor’s note: The presidential candidates are all embracing the mantra of change as they try to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Some of America’s poorest communities remind them that Dr. King called poverty a blight on the American Dream, and it’s this topic that needs to be addressed most urgently, writes Father Michael Seifert, president of Proyecto Digna, which is co-sponsoring a series of Town Hall meetings for low-income families in South Texas this winter, as part of the Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice Campaign which aims to bring families together across the country to create a national platform of family issues such as affordable housing, subsidized childcare, living wages, universal healthcare and quality education. NAM’s coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

BROWNSVILLE, Tex. — If Dr. Martin Luther King were alive today, he’d be marching in the Rio Grande Valley. Forty years after his death, it is here that his lovely dream of equality for all God’s children is suffering to be born.

Dr. King rightly named poverty as a blight on the American Dream, and it would test the imagination to find an area of our country poorer than the Valley. We fail every social indicator of wellbeing: access to medical care, employment, affordable housing and high school graduation rates. My own community, Cameron Park, has a per capita income of $4,135—less than that of Guatemala.

Yet, we live in Texas—one of the wealthiest regions in the world. Texas produces more wealth than entire nations. But Texas doesn’t take care of its own. The heartbreaking thing is that most of those forced to suffer the stingy misery of Texas poverty are children.

That is why my organization, Proyecto Digna, has joined with other groups nationwide in the Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign. As the 2008 elections approach, we are collaborating with other community groups to plan a series of town halls across Texas, in conjunction with others taking place across the nation. As we plan these town hall meetings, families are already sharing their own dreams for their children--that they will grow up in safe housing, with quality health care and education; that the parents of our community will have jobs with living wages that allow them to support their families, and the childcare they need to go to those jobs without worry for their children. Together, as this conversation builds, we are creating a national platform of family issues.

Martin Luther King's dream wasn't a daydream; he was dreamer with a plan. We are as serious about our dreams as King was about his. For example, many historians would argue that the turning point of the civil rights movement was the Children's March in Birmingham in 1962. On January 26, as part of the Equal Voice campaign, more than 700 people will join a Poor People's march from downtown Atlanta to the state capital. The caravan will make stops along the way, such as a local hospital, to draw attention to the uninsured. Participants will plant justice flags along the way.

Not long ago, I had a visit from a group of public health professionals. They had come to see me because health care is so abysmal here that my community has become a topic of exotic interest to scholars.

We went for a walk, ending up looking out over a creek that runs in front of the church. The academics took note of the collection of cement and tar-papered shacks lining the stream. Someone was burning garbage. The stench drifted over us.

One of the visitors asked me, “Are we in the United States or in Mexico?” I said, “This is Texas. Why do you ask?” She said, “Because it reminds me of home.” I asked her where that was, and she replied, unsmiling, “Calcutta, India.”

But we aren’t in India, or Guatemala, or Mexico. We are Texans. We are working Texans, men and women who work two shifts or two jobs, and then another on weekends.

Salt of the earth, the Bible calls us. “El pueblo de Dios,” Cesar Chavez named us.

But for all our effort, we barely pay our bills. Minimum wages cannot support a family, no matter how many jobs you manage to hold down. We are too proud to beg, so we don’t all eat the way we need to. We pray, always and fiercely, that we don’t sicken, thatthe shadow of an accident does not cross our homes. We simply cannot afford to be sick.

Despite the hardness of life here, we love the Valley. There is a quality of life here that is missing in San Antonio or Houston or Dallas. There is an intangible spirit that defies the measures of the social sciences. Some call it solidarity, others a love for the extended family. Church people call it community. The Valley is one place in America where neighbors still unashamedly go door-to-door to ask for donations for a funeral, where no one sleeps on the streets, where no one goes without a meal, however simple that offering might be.

We consider ourselves brothers and sisters, and today’s harsh anti-immigrant voices have deepened that sense of community. We especially care about our children. When the president vetoed the expansion of children’s health coverage, the anger here was palpable.

We look forward to the 2008 elections, for many here have recently discovered the power of the vote. One after another, the presidential candidates call for “change.” We in the Rio Grande Valley are ready for change. We believe, as Dr. King said, that “the arc ofthe moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

We are people of faith, hope and long-suffering love. We understand the hard work that social change requires, and we are not afraid of that. After all, we are working people. After all, we are the legacy of Don Cesar Chavez and of Dr. Martin Luther King.


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