Column: Occupy Giving

Reflections on MLK and the other one percent

Editor’s note: On Nov. 5, 2011 the Ann Arbor branch of the NAACP held its annual Freedom Fund dinner to honor high-achieving black students. It was keynoted by Raymond Randolph Jr., who participated in the Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961.


When represented as a pie chart, it's not as clear whether 1% is the top or the bottom. (Chart by The Chronicle)

Also addressing the audience was Ward 1 city councilmember Sabra Briere. Though The Chronicle did not attend the event, with Briere’s permission, we’re publishing the draft of her speech. We think it deserves a wider reading – as the calendar turns to the traditional season of giving, and as police in more than one city appear to be in a mood to move against Occupy demonstrators.

The official motto of the dinner was: “Building the Future on the Foundations of the Past” 

Tonight I’m filling in for the mayor of Ann Arbor, John Hieftje, and for the mayor pro tem, Marcia Higgins. It’s an honor to play your mayor this evening.

I’d like first to remind everyone that tonight we’re not just breaking bread together. We’re celebrating Ann Arbor’s NAACP day, the first Saturday in November. Each year we hold the dinner on this night to remind us of our need to work together.

There are several people in the audience tonight who currently hold office, who have held office in the past, or who would like to hold office in the near future.

If you are a current elected official, please stand. Those who’ve been elected in the past, please join them. And those who are running for office, could you stand too? Let’s applaud their willingness to serve.

I prepared a few remarks, and promise not to speak at length. Tonight’s topic indicates that we are building our future on the foundations of the past.

I take my texts from the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The function of education … is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. … Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. [MLK "The Purpose of Education," 1948]

I think I’ve learned the value of an education, especially as the world continues to change. It’s one thing to learn how to use a computer; it’s a completely different thing to learn how to think, to ask questions, and to constantly learn. During my brief life I’ve found the computer a constant challenge, but one I was able to tackle. But learning how to evaluate the information I receive, how to question authority – even in myself – and how to be ethically honest has been more demanding.

Sometimes we forget what the purpose of an education really is. It isn’t to get a job. Few of us will work for only one employer in our lifetimes. It isn’t to be employable, either. Many of the skills needed on the job aren’t the ones the educational system taught us. Those skills – being prompt, being responsible, being reliable, taking pride in what we are doing – those skills we learn in life.

But a good education teaches us those things – in the classroom or out of it – that allow us to think intensively and critically. We learn that we are always ignorant, and always striving to know more and be more.

Rarely do we find people who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think. [MLK "Strength to Love," 1963]

Education – the kind that leads to hard, solid thinking – isn’t something we are handed. We need to work at it, acquire it from our teachers, and recognize that “teacher” includes parent, pastor, neighbor and friend. If we get our vision of the world handed to us, if we never learn to question the quality of information we receive, then others control our thoughts and actions.

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. [MLK "Strength to Love," 1963]

It’s that willingness to be sincere in our ignorance and intentional in our stupidity – and we are all stupid from time to time – that allows others to control our thoughts and our actions. Each piece of wisdom we are given must be questioned, tested, and folded into our own world view. That’s because wisdom cannot be given – it must be earned. And our failure to become wise encourages us all to make decisions based on our ignorance and our biases.

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood. [MLK "Strength to Love," 1963]

We each face a lot of pressure to conform. Our keynote speaker tonight demonstrated in his youth the value of resisting conformity. That value – that nothing would change unless our world vision was challenged – often goes unconsidered or underappreciated.

Tonight there are folks all across our nation, sleeping out in parks and public spaces because they are protesting. They are protesting an economic system that is failing them – and us. The Occupy movement should make us all rethink our vision of America – our vision that hard work is rewarded, that each generation will be better off than the one before, that progress is defined as better technology.

I suspect that everyone in this room is part of the 99%.

According to The Economist, the data showing the difference between the top 1% and the rest of us is dramatic and feeds into two existing prejudices:

First, that a system that works well for the very richest has delivered returns on labor that are disappointing for everyone else. Second, that the people at the top have made out like bandits over the past few decades, and that now everyone else must pick up the bill. Of course it is a little more complicated than that. But this downturn ought to test the normally warm feelings in America of the 99% towards the 1%. [The Economist, Oct. 26, 2011 "The 99 Percent"]

Is it testing your warm feelings?

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” [MLK "Conquering Self-Centeredness," 1957]

Finally, I need to remind us all that, if we are the 99%, there are still others who are the bottom 1%.

While the top 1% has seen its income grow significantly in the last 20 years, and the rest of us have seen our incomes stagnate year over year, the bottom 1% has seen an actual decrease.

As we approach the traditional giving season, please think of those who are forced to live without – and of those on the streets, reminding us of our duty to each other.

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  1. November 16, 2011 at 11:28 am | permalink

    Excellent. Thank you for printing this. I particularly like it when we are reminded that Dr. King said a lot of pointed, sometimes uncomfortable things, not just inspirational ones.

    My early experience with Dr. King, watching him speak on a grainy black-and-white television in my parent’s home, transformed my thinking on many things. It is good to know that he can still reach out across the decades to prick our consciences.

  2. By Philip Brzezinski
    November 16, 2011 at 2:04 pm | permalink

    Having been homeless in Ann Arbor myself, I feel that the homeless are the REAL 99%!!!

  3. November 16, 2011 at 5:14 pm | permalink

    “…the bottom 1% has seen an actual decrease.”

    I would suggest that those who have seen an actual decrease totals a lot more than 1%. Some real figures would be of more benefit here than bromides and catchphrases, but I am not knocking the message or the messenger.

    Truly the 1% versus 99% is a problem of greed plus a failure of democracy, and a triumph of ignorance; but our real problems globally are larger and more complex, population and technology have grown at cross purposes — we breed prolifically, but invent machines to replace people, and befoul the planet in the process. What we need most is an economic Einstein who can figure out what it will take to make our species viable into the future, and less selfish and murderous.

  4. By Steve Bean
    November 16, 2011 at 5:58 pm | permalink

    @3, have you considered how people would live, what we would do, and more to the point, not do, if we agreed to stop using money and other forms of exchange?

  5. November 16, 2011 at 6:25 pm | permalink

    Steve: If I had a solution, I would freely offer it. I am just some dumb amoeba, certainly as clueless, and by damn site no Einstein.

    All I do know is that the squirrels in my neighborhood seem pretty happy, and while they might not be sending rockets to Mars or painting fine pictures, nobody’s blaming global warming on them either.

    You noted in a comment the other day the lack of greed among animals, well don’t mess with that squirrel’s nuts is all I can say. Acquisitiveness is a universal I think, but like I said, I don’t suggest that I personally have a clue to a solution, but balance may be a good direction. Education is another, not rote learning but unalloyed knowledge instead.

  6. By Steve Bean
    November 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm | permalink

    Eating is a universal. Acquisitiveness isn’t. :-)

    My comment was an invitation. I’ve thought it through, and it’s surprisingly promising. Certainly in contrast to our current circumstances and the prospects that our money-driven system presents, a world without money is quite attractive.

    Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I’ll humbly offer that we can’t solve our problems using the same *system* that we used to create them. Since the system influences our thinking, it’s that much more of a challenge to step outside in order to see the possibilities.

    I’ll renew my invitation to you and others: step outside the money system and look at the world. How does it function? What myths are we caught up in only because we’ve lived our lives entirely within this system? What concepts do we take as truth? What behaviors that seem to be human nature are really due to the context we live in? What would happen to those things (not to mention the financial services industry) in a world without money?

    Our education, learning, and knowledge are all nested within this system. Can we set it all aside and think and ask of each thought that comes to mind, “Is that true?”

  7. By ScratchingmyHead
    November 17, 2011 at 10:44 am | permalink

    I find it interesting that the Ann Arbor Chronicle did not choose to publish any of the statements that the NAACP keynote speaker shared at this dinner. I did not attend this dinner to hear a lecture from Councilperson Briere. I want to have a good feeling that our local organization is getting a grip on local issues and so far it doesn’t appear to be the case. These events are becoming more of the same.