Fighting society's silence, 35 years after march It has been said that a nation can be judged by how it treats its poor. By that standard, this great and powerful nation is not doing too well.

August 25, 1998|By Jack L. Levin

FRIDAY WILL MARK the 35th anniversary of the 1963 "March for Jobs and Freedom" when a quarter-million of us gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to protest racial discrimination in America.

One address at that historic event has reverberated through the years: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s stirring "I Have a Dream." Other rousing orations were delivered by such speakers as A. Philip Randolph Jr., founder and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Whitney Young Jr. of the National Urban League; John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.; Walter P. Reuther, United Automobile Workers; and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. While all dealt with the same theme, the call for jobs and freedom so long denied to black citizens, none had the rhetorical longevity of Mr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. None so passionately moved a quarter-million listeners then and millions more since. However, one that made an impact on me as an American Jew was that of Rabbi Joachim Prinz. He was national president of the American Jewish Congress, of which I was then the Maryland chapter president. He was also president of the Jewish Organization of Presidents.

The theme of his speech was the crime of silence, based on his experience as chief rabbi of Berlin during the rise of Hitler.

"America," he cried, "must not become like Germany, a nation of onlookers at evil. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community, but for the sake of the idea and the aspiration of America itself.

"Our children," he continued, "yours and mine in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of 'liberty and justice for all.'

"The time, I believe, has come to work together, for it is not enough to hope together, to pray together . . . We must work together to make this oath a reality in a morally renewed and united America."

Those are words to live by today also. We must not remain silent about welfare reform and quietly resign ourselves to some of its outrageous provisions.

We cannot tolerate the one-size-fits-all solution to welfare of "go find a job." Young children cannot find jobs. The elderly and disabled cannot find jobs. The mother who cannot afford child care for her several children cannot seek a job. The uneducated cannot qualify for jobs that pay enough to support a family. Such weaknesses cannot be ignored and must be revised.

We cannot accept as political correctness that millions low-income children and pregnant women must be left without basic health insurance coverage while we squander billions of dollars on unnecessary defense and pork-barrel spending. We cannot count upon states with no programs yet in place and with shabby records on social justice to give priority to the unpopular issue of needy children and the elderly. We cannot remain indifferent to growing numbers of low-income children who have far less than they need and to tens of thousands of disabled poor children who receive little or no support other than welfare.

With so much in America to be proud of, how can we live with the shame that child poverty rates in the United States are higher than in some less wealthy nations. Welfare must be reformed, not repealed.

We are too silent about politicians who claim to care about children but who don't because neither they nor their mothers are voters or contributors.

We are too silent about the shameful fact that millions Americans in this wealthy nation are hungry or malnourished.

We are too silent that in the midst of plenty, millions of children live in poverty and aren't getting enough food.

We are too silent that millions Americans are homeless.

We are too silent that millions of the elderly are forced to choose between medicine and food because they cannot afford both and that millions of Americans have no health insurance.

It has been said that a nation can be judged by how it treats its poor. By that standard, this great and powerful nation is not doing too well. It is time to break the silence, to speak out for economic liberty and justice for all and review the weaknesses of the Welfare Reform Act.

We must upgrade our concern about other neighbors' children living on streets awash with drugs and bristling with guns.

Silence is a crime not only against its victims, but also against ourselves.

Jack L. Levin writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 8/25/98

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