“We are saying that something is wrong with capitalism,” Reverend Dwight Gardner, president of the grassroots network IIRON, called out to a crowd of 2,000 people. “There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
St. Michael the Archangel Church, at 83rd and South Shore, was bursting with people this past Sunday. But this was no Mass, and those words were not Gardner’s own. He was quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the keynote address for what has recently become an annual South Side tradition on the weekend of Dr. King’s birth. This year’s event, titled “Hope in an Age of Crisis: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Radical Vision for Economic Equality”—or simply “#RadicalMLK”—was the largest and most galvanizing yet.
The event was organized by IIRON and The People’s Lobby, a group that uses both community organizing and direct political action to advance progressive goals. They discussed issues of economic, environmental, and social justice, characterizing them as driven largely by corporate power. With similar passion to that of Gardner, and invoking King just as often, they eloquently laid out the terms of today’s inequalities. Toby Chow, one of the leaders of IIRON, emphasized that two-thirds of corporations in Illinois pay no state income tax, while programs such as Medicaid face cuts. The Rev. Darice Wright talked about seeing residents of the homeless shelter at her church wake up in the morning to go to their full-time jobs, and urged those assembled to say “that ain’t right” to the fact that some companies that receive government subsidies do not pay their workers a living wage. Others explored the topics of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and mass incarceration.
The energy was palpable. Every so often a gospel choir would burst into an interlude of song, and the speakers’ points were punctuated by whoops and shouts of agreement from the audience. And it certainly didn’t hurt that, sitting in the church, one could look around and see all two thousand people sitting in one cavernous room. But what stood out most was the way this display was coupled with the idea of action with “the ninety-nine percent” at the helm. Workers’ justice activists and environmentalists alike described the day as a day to take back democracy and put people ahead of profit. Accordingly, most of the speeches were paired with calls for elected officials to come to the stage and publicly declare their support for particular steps to address the problems that had been outlined.
The commitments made by the officials were significant: State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the House majority leader, said she would support a bill for corporate tax transparency. A representative of Governor Pat Quinn said he would commit to implementing a climate action plan and strengthening fracking regulations (his office had only come to a final decision earlier that day). State Reps. Christian Mitchell and Will Davis both made commitments to support a requirement for companies that receive state subsidies to pay their workers higher wages.
Just as important, though, were the calls on ordinary citizens to get involved in fighting for these causes. As everyone sang “We Shall Overcome” together at the meeting’s end, the collective fervor made it clear that many had been motivated by the event to take part in that liberation.