Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Congressman Antonio Delgado’s Sunday, Jan. 19, address at the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission’s MLK Day commemoration. Delgado represents the 19th District, which includes Otsego County.
Dr. King has long been my North Star. The power of the man spoke to me even before I fully grasped the magnitude of his legacy. And to stand here today, provided with the opportunity to honor his life – having myself become the first African American to represent Upstate New York in Congress – is incredibly humbling. For I know that without him, there is no me.
But to be clear, I’m not here to talk too much about the past and how it brought us all here today. I’d rather speak about the present, or even better, what Dr. King once called the “fierce urgency of now.”
You see, Dr. King long warned us about the moment we find ourselves in now. Indeed, he gave his last warning nearly 52 years ago, on April 3, 1968 – the day before he was assassinated. At the time, he was delivering what would become his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at Mason Temple Church in Memphis Tennessee. He was in Tennessee to support the sanitation workers strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. Importantly, by that time, Dr. King had made a critical shift in his strategy to achieve justice and freedom for all. Rather than focus just on the legal and political obstacles for black Americans, he took on broader issues like poverty, unemployment, education and economic disenfranchisement for all of the nation’s poor – black, white and brown. And it was in the midst of promoting his Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. King was summoned to
Memphis to lend his voice to the sanitation workers’ strike.
In his speech that night, Dr. King said the following. “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity.” He continued, “If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent.”
Now the way I read this, what Dr. King is saying is that as inequity grows in a democratic society, so too does the illegitimacy of that society’s democracy. And after a while, the inequity can be so extreme, that the people stop believing in democracy all together – which, is a very dangerous place to be. Why, you might ask? Well, at that point, only certain voices need matter, and only select groups need abide by the rule of law, or warrant protection under the law. And what you end up with is a society where might makes right and where greed triumphs over fairness. It’s a scary situation, and its one we are not too far removed from today.
We’ve stopped believing in democracy, and it’s not without good reason. Let me explain. When I was growing up, America was number one in the world in upward mobility. Now, we are dead last in the western world. As a young kid I had a better than 50/50 chance to end up better off than my parents. Now, more and more of our young people are worse off than their parents. Tragically, as more and more wealth has been generated in our economy, economic inequality has only worsened. Consider the fact that while the economy has doubled in size over the last 40 to 50 years, and worker productivity has increased, wages have remained stagnant over that same period of time. The wealth remains concentrated at the top. Indeed, the top .1 percent owns one-fifth of all the wealth, and the top 1 percent owns 29 percent, which is more than the combined wealth of the entire middle class. Meanwhile, the bottom half of all households own just 1.3 percent of total household wealth, two-thirds of Americans are living pay check to pay check, and half the country couldn’t survive a $500 medical emergency bill without going into debt.
It is hard to believe, but 95 percent of all the economic gains post the Great Recession have gone to the top 1 percent.
These numbers are staggering, and when combined with the fact that unlimited amounts of money are allowed to influence our elections and the decision making of elected officials, the result is that a great many of us our actually shut out of our democracy. It is no longer government for the people and by the people, but rather government for the powerful few and by the powerful few.
In response to this cold reality – where perceived scarcity becomes the norm – it is human instinct to want to close ranks and only look out for yourself and those closest to you. When faced with a zero-sum game – even if just an illusion – we take sides, lose our center – and become hollow at the core. Partisanship and divisiveness intensify and democratic norms like mutual toleration erode. Rather than accept our partisan rivals as legitimate we treat them as enemies or traitors and exhibit no restraint – anything goes. This type of environment allows for the rise of strongman politics and demagoguery, where those seeking political power appeal to the desires and prejudices of disaffected people rather than by using rational or fact based arguments.
To be clear, race-baiting, fear-mongering and scape-goating become the predominate methods for political ascent. And the result is a more hostile environment that’s feeds off of anger, and ultimately leads to hatred of the other – from racism, to anti-Semitism, to Islamophobia, to xenophobia.
And as far as I can tell, this is where we find ourselves today – this, my friends, is the urgency of now. Hate is on the march, and our very democracy is on the line. So what’s the answer? The answer, my friend, is the power of love. Now stay with me on this.
As Dr. King once preached, “I have . . . decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems.”
It is the only force, said Dr. King, “capable of transforming an enemy to a friend.” For “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that . . . Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
And I couldn’t agree more. When you think about it, love is at the heart of democracy. For love enables us to see the humanity in each other – beyond our surface level differences. Love acknowledges the equality of human dignity in us all. And as Aristotle once wrote, “democracy arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects.”
Thus, as we are all equal in our humanity and before
God, we should also be equal in the eyes of our laws and government.
One person, one vote. We all matter, regardless of the fact we might not look like each other, pray like each other, dress like each other, or eat like each other. We all should be free to speak our minds, practice our religion, cast a vote, and pursue our happiness.
This is America’s promise; and it’s why our land has long been a beacon of hope and democracy for people everywhere. It’s why we gaze upon the Statue of Liberty with pride, and seek to embody its inscription – “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”
All of this is born out of a profound love for humanity.
And this is why I love America so deeply. I love our steadfast commitment to perfecting our union, through all the ups and downs. I love how we were not founded on language or geography, but rather a set of democratic ideals and principles, designed to morally anchor our collective will, from freedom, to equality to fairness. I love our diversity and how it makes our endeavor as a nation, human history’s grand experiment in democracy. And I love how in America, a little black boy from a working class family in Schenectady can one day grow up to be a Congressman with a rap album and represent a district that is nearly 90 percent white, and the eighth most rural in the entire country.