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Sierra Club joins social justice groups to honor 'radical' Martin Luther King

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar … it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look easily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.

St. Michael the Archangel Church
photos by Sandy Bykowski
"The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice."
photos by Sandy Bykowski

Martin Luther King, April 14, 1967

On Sunday, January 19, 2014, approximately 2000 charged activists and a handful of elected officials packed the St. Michael the Archangel Church on Chicago's far south side to honor the legacy of a man that many across the country are celebrating today. However, this celebration wasn't just about remembering King: it was about finding a way to carry his radical ideas forward into this century. As the Reverend Dwight Gardner, President of the Illinois Indiana Regional Organizing Network, explained, this event wasn't about the “scrubbed and anesthetized King” that we see in the mainstream media, but “the real Dr. Martin Luther King, and his vision for economic equality.”

Over 20 speakers from a coalition of groups spoke, including SOUL, IIRON, the People's Lobby, a variety of religious faiths, and, for the first time in a collaboration of this type, the Sierra Club. The speakers spoke on topics ranging from fighting austerity, worker justice, mass incarceration, economic equality, and the environment. The common thread running through all these speakers and issues was the issue of overreaching corporate power that was creating disparate economic and power gaps in our communities. Whether they were struggling for workers' rights, or fighting against fracking, each speaker repeated the theme of corporate control of our economic, social, and political systems.

George Goehl, Executive Director of the National People's Action, reminded us that corporations conduct class war on citizens on a daily basis, and “yet it's only called class war when we fight back.” Two thirds of corporations in Illinois pay no taxes whatsoever, and yet the response from our governments to this is to cut funding for schools, healthcare, infrastructure, and the environment. Reverend Dwight Gardner, the President of IIRON reminded the audience of Dr. King's more radical views, especially when it came to economic issues. King knew there was something inheritently wrong and unjust about capitalism: in fact, he was an advocate for democratic socialism. The “planet and the human race are rushing towards catastrophe,” Rev. Gardner warned, “because profit and private wealth are driving us towards extinction.”

The coalition had specific agendas, and called local State Representatives and Chicago Aldermen to task and pledge to support the following positions:

  1. Full disclosure on corporate public taxes and income, so that we know just who is paying their fair share

  2. Support HB390, which closes three corporate tax loopholes

  3. Amend the Illinois constitution from a flat tax rate (which puts a greater burden on the poor) to a more equitable, progressive system.

The five State Representatives in attendance, including Barbara Flynn Currie, Majority Leader of the Illinois House of Representatives, all came on stage and stated “yes” when asked whether they would support these bills.

Then six Chicago aldermen and women, including Pat Dowell, Robin Sawyer, Leslie Hansen, Will Burns, and Natasha Holmes, were called on stage to pledge their support for a similar Chicago Corporate Tax Disclosure ordinance. All vowed to do so.

Finally, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was asked to help in the fight against mass incarceration—what speaker Marlon Branch, from SOUL and IIRON described as the “new Jim Crow.” Preckwinkle, who has called prisons the “intersection between racism and poverty,” emphatically agreed, “Of course!”

So where does climate change fit into all this? There are numerous overlaps between environmental and economic issues. This is the reason why two busloads of people from the Sierra Club joined in solidarity with SOUL and IIRON and the People's Lobby in order to address these common foes at this event.

Dylan Amlin from the IIRON Student Network described a “radical vision” for saving the planet and solving unemployment by investing in green jobs. Jack Darin, head of the Illinois Sierra Club called Governor Quinn's office to answer some demands of their own. The issues the environmental groups addressed were:

  1. Strengthen fracking regulations. The coalition had submitted 30,000 public comments against fracking in the public hearings last year. IIRON demands a fracking policy that “puts people before industry profits.”

  2. Support President Obama's Climate Action Plan

  3. Commit to having 25% of Illinois' power come from renewables by 2025

Cory Foster, Assistant Chief of Staff for the Governor's office, was authorized to speak for the governor when he promised Quinn would support these measures. “He absolutely believes in this mission,” Foster said, pointing out that Quinn was a member of the Citizens Utility Board.

By joining forces on this day to recognize the radical legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, organizations like IIRON and the Sierra Club hope to get to the common root of the wide array of societal ills these groups are fighting: a root that King recognized as well: corporate malfeasance and a runaway capitalist system that destroys both people and the planet in their rush for profits. For as King said, “when machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

To find out more about the work these organizations are doing, contact:


IIRON Student Network

The People's Lobby


The Sierra Club of Illinois

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