15 January 2007

At Denver's MLK Marade

Health Care for All Colorado was one of dozens of groups honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the "marade" down East Colfax Ave. this morning, from the King Memorial statue in City Park to the Civic Center.

About 1,200 marched; a good number considering the frigid cold. Denver has traditionally fielded one of the biggest Martin Luther King commemorations in the country. One year nearly 42,000 participated.

Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO), wearing his trademark cowboy hat and strolling around before the rally began, told me that healthcare was one of the three big issues facing the country — the others being what he called the Bush Administration's "Humpty-Dumpty" foreign fiasco and energy.

The temperature had just climbed up past single digits Fahrenheit at 8:30 a.m. when participants began to gather. State Farm Insurance, the event's major sponsor, had erected a big red tent and was passing out thousands of cups of hot chocolate, red "State Farm" scarves, and red ear warmers, also with the State Farm logo. There was so much red in the scene that it looked like a State Farm employee picnic, incongruously staged in the snow.

On the other hand, Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" rang through the speakers. Is there a happier song?

Why has there never been a holiday
Where peace is celebrated
all throughout the world...

So let us all begin
We know that love can win
Let it out don't hold it in
Sing it loud as you can

A group led by a man who said he was part of the new Black Panthers wouldn't have anything to do with the official, corporate-sponsored rally. They were holding their own rally a football field or so away. "Did Martin Luther King work for State Farm?" they shouted. "Democrats are just the same," they yelled.

One of these subversive types passed out fliers inviting us to join them, persuasively pointing out that State Farm was at this very moment denying promised coverage to folks in New Orleans.

I was tempted to go over and check it out but the same lethargy that keeps people from getting involved in politics at all seemed to grip me. And I wanted to hear Governor Bill Ritter, Mayor Hickenlooper (who has such a great name that it's hard to remember that his first name is John — seems like usually people call him "Hick" when they're being familiar), former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and Senator Salazar.

Another good reason to stay was that I was holding one side of one of the Health Care for All Colorado's two banners. Its message: "Of all forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Denver was at its best: crystalline dry and clear, the blue Rockies hanging over the city to the west, blue sky above, and a fresh blanket of snow crunching underfoot.

Colorado's new governor, Bill Ritter, told the crowd Martin Luther King acted to make the world a better place for his children and grandchildren. He urged the crowd to do the same.

"We should be thinking about our educational system, about our healthcare system with equal access for everyone, about economic opportunities for everyone to have a job and a chance to improve their family's quality of life. That will make a difference for our children," the governor said.

Webb spoke passionately against the Iraq war, saying that the money spent there should have gone to domestic needs — like healthcare.

Behind us, a group of white teenage boys, with possibly their father and mother chaperoning, had set up a billboard-sized banner. With a charming photo of an African-American toddler, it read:

"We don't want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population..." — Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.

When she walked by we offered information about Health Care for All Colorado to the woman with the Right to Lifers.

"I don't believe in universal healthcare," the woman said dismissively.

Fair enough. I don't believe in deciding for others when they should have children.

And then again, maybe this isn't a case of live and let live. As a progressive and a Democrat, I'm hardwired to be tolerant of other's beliefs. But what about when beliefs are based on lies?

Because the words on that walk-around billboard were a lie. They were taken out of context — something that seems almost immediately likely.

Sanger's words were from a letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble, during a time when she was trying to establish a clinic in Harlem. She was responding to fears that birth control was a threat to African-Americans.

Birth control — not abortion. That's the first thing to note. How many of us want to go back to a time when we couldn't choose contraception?

Sanger did say that clinics that primarily served African-American populations should include African-American doctors, nurses and ministers, so as to assuage misplaced suspicions.

"The minister's work is also important, and also he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation, as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs." (Sanger, 1939, December).

Planned Parenthood has a page regarding this quote and others that have been used by anti-choice forces to blacken the reputation of Sanger and the organization.

Here's what Sanger had to say about eugenics, a popular belief in the early decades of the twentieth century:

"Eugenists imply or insist that a woman's first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her first duty to the state. We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother."

Sanger did agree with the then-common wisdom that people with hereditary, disabling conditions should be sterilized, a view that Planned Parenthood has long renounced as objectionable. To judge Sanger only by that opinion, so common in her era, however, is as wrong as dismissing Lincoln's greatness because emancipation was not his first motive for standing against the Confederacy.

The most racist eugenicists of Sanger's era, the Nazis, burned her books.

For the other side of the story, try visiting The Truth About Margaret Sanger, for faked photos of Sanger at a KKK rally. Which side of this debate seems more credible? Or actually don't go there. It's just ugly.

Consider instead what life was like in the 1920s and 1930s, when only the wealthy had access to family planning. Establishing clinics for poor women, including poor African-American women, was the only way to change that unequal state of affairs and to help women help themselves. All women. Pandragon has a great post about this, titled "More Smearing of Margaret Sanger Corrected."

We can all be glad that Martin Luther King is such a towering figure that he can draw in all kinds of people, but it wasn't appropriate for Right To Life to come in order to mislead regarding their enemy Planned Parenthood's relationship with the African-American minority in this country. Imagine the outcry had Planned Parenthood been there with some huge billboard that took out of context a quote from the founder of Right To Life.

In fact, Planned Parenthood should have been at the Marade. Martin Luther King was a supporter of family planning and Planned Parenthood in particular.

In 1966, Planned Parenthood awarded him the first annual Margaret Sanger Award for "courageous resistance to bigotry and his lifelong dedication to the advancement of social justice and human dignity."

Coretta Scott King delivered his acceptance speech.

"Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her," he wrote (and she spoke).

"Intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in [African-Americans'] quest for security and a decent life."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed in inclusiveness, not excluding people. He was a Christian, and with nonviolence, he often turned the other cheek. But he also spoke truth to power, countering lies.

We need to always do the same.

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