“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

Most of us remember when President Obama  a couple of years ago spoke about the “fierce urgency of now.”  However, these words were originally spoken by Martin Luther King in an anti-war speech in 1967:

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…”

Although he spoke in opposition to the war in Vietnam, his plea was much broader and his message timeless. Indeed, if he was alive today he would say the same thing about the plight of millions of Americans living in poverty and devoid of hope. Three years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson, in his 1964 State of the Union address said:

Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.

As I wrote in a previous post, fifty years later we’re still losing the War on Poverty that was declared in Johnson’s speech.  In Rhode Island, we have all but unconditionally surrendered.

Johnson and King had it right; millions live on the “outskirts of hope” and there is a “fierce urgency of now” to do something about it. So why haven’t we?

A couple of days ago I was speaking to a younger colleague (I’m the resident geezer) who asked with happened during the ’70s that turned our culture and society away from helping those in need? What happened to the value of compassion for others, he asked?

My flip answer was that Nixon won in ’68. While that, as far as it goes (which isn’t far), is true, that isn’t the whole story. I would assert (and I’ve gotten a lot of push back on this) that too many of the “revolutionaries” of the ’60s became the “Beemer” drivers of the ’70s, the stockbrokers and bankers of the ’80s, the hedge fund managers of the ’90s-early 2000s, and the fat cats of today.

That’s stark, I know, but I think that there’s some truth to my assertion. Many of those who protested the war and social conditions in the ’60s were middle-class white kids in school. Like all social movements, the movement for change was led by those with the time to do it, in this case students. History tells us that the Progressive Movement of the turn of the 20th century was disproportionately led by middle-class, educated women. Why? Because they had the education, means and the time to do so. The same with the ’60s “radicals.”

But what happened? How could Woodstock Nation buy into Reagan’s Morning in America, where we all lived on tree lined, pristine streets?  In 1992, Thomas (who once worked for the Providence Journal) and Mary Edsall tried to explain this massive shift in values and outlook in a fabulous book, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics. In it, the Edsalls are able to link the innate but very real racism that existed (and still exists) in America, with the fear that if all had equal or civil rights it would lead to a diminution of pride and place in society of largely middle-class whites, and finally both race and rights are linked with the genetic fear that taxes would be used by big government to redistribute money from the haves to the have-nots.

Jerry Rubin (who ended up as a stockbroker – sell out), Bill Ayers, and Dr. Spock meet Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist. Chances are that you are very familiar with at least two out of the last three and may have only a passing familiarity, if that, with the first three. The possible exception might be Ayers who became a punching bag/straw man for Sarah Palin in 2008.

Over the past fifty years, we have morphed from a (barely) altruistic society to a self-centered individualist culture. Our national motto ought to be changed from “In God We Trust,” to “I got mine, screw you.”  Do you think that’s harsh? Then you don’t live in the world that I and my colleagues live in. We work with those who are the poorest of the poor, along with those who are slipping from the (former) middle-class through the non-extant “safety net,” in free fall to the bottom.

If you’re reading this, you already know that RICLAPP provides legal services to those most in need.  Like our clients whose very lives live at “the fierce urgency of now” in order to survive, we rely on the fierce urgency of funding to keep going. We don’t make money from poor people, which is why we need constantly to raise funds to continue to operate.

Don’t be frightened, I’m not asking for dollars – now. But if a society funds what it values, the functional equivalent of putting money where our collective mouths are, then society doesn’t give a rip about poor people, or at least not enough to provide direct services that will make the lives of families more stable and secure.

There are a lot of dollars available for “systemic” change. You know, the white-paper report on (fill in issue here) that in a decade will make live a little less miserable that it currently is for thousands of our fellow Rhode Islanders. Or impact litigation to improve housing stock in our state. Both activities are laudable, but neither is going to prevent an eviction that will force a tenant to sleep under an overpass; nor are they efficacious to restore lost benefits so that a disabled person can eat and receive health benefits.

The white papers and impact litigation are important, but a lawyer working with a client is vital to ensure that the promise of justice and fairness are meted to each individual, not in years but often in weeks.

In short, we need both. But funding for agencies like RICLAPP is in short supply.  Foundations rarely, if ever, provide financial support for direct legal services. There are any number of reasons why this is so, but I won’t get bogged down listing my personal top five. Suffice it to say that the lack of funding for these services reflects the attitudes of donors in society.

The government is not much better. The Fiscal Year 2015 Legal Service Corporation budget amounts to $350 million dollars to fund public interest legal services for the whole country. That’s the same dollar amount by which President Obama proposed to reduce the Community Service Block Grant program in Fiscal Year 2012.

So much for the fierce urgency of now.

It is time we embrace some simple truths: poverty is a community problem that requires community action to eradicate or ameliorate it; the vindication of rights of an individual is a vindication of rights for all of us; that we’re going to spend less to vindicate the rights of the under-served and lift them out of abject poverty than we are currently spending to keep these people down; and that each of us is a member of a community, one in which we largely share the same goals and aspirations for ourselves and our kids, and in which each of us is entitled to an equal measure of respect and human dignity.

The first paragraph of Dr. King’s 1967 speech ended with these words:  “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” To my colleague Dave, I would say that this is a time when “silence is betrayal.” As King admonished us, “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

Those of us who are able have an affirmative duty to speak truth to power. I have a vantage point and a forum to speak these truths and while my vision is limited, I must speak.

I will no longer betray my cause of my, and my colleagues’, good works by silence. I will speak.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *