Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an opportunity to come together to celebrate freedom, equality, and what we can do together to defend democracy. After pressure from conservative shock jock Mark Belling, the Racine Unified School District has demonstrated a shocking and shameful display of cowardice in allowing his bullying to influence their support for MLK Day, organized by Youth Empowered in the Struggle, Voces de la Frontera, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Racine Education Association, among others.
Belling — who periodically fills in for Rush Limbaugh — is well known in Wisconsin for stirring up racial and class animus. In 2004, he was suspended for calling Latino voters “wetbacks.” In 2007, he said that “even moderate Muslims seem to hate all Jews,” and last year he raised suspicions about the opposition to the downtown Marriott hotel, noting that much of the “powerful opposition” was “Jewish.” In 2011 he called Wisconsin public school teachers “absolute lunatics” and said, “Most of them do not care about the children.” Only a few months ago, he referred to young African-American men as “the pigs of mothers who are too lazy to put their children in a crib.”
Is this who we want to influence our schools’ decisions on Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Isn’t he the exact opposite of what Martin Luther King Jr. Day is supposed to teach us to be? Nonetheless, that is who RUSD has chosen to listen to.
For years our youth group, YES, has been a great opportunity for young people to learn about democracy and the importance of civic participation. In 2004, while Belling was calling many of them “wetbacks,” Voces de la Frontera, YES and the NAACP organized a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote drive in neighborhoods where YES students live. These young people distributed over 30,000 pieces of nonpartisan literature in more than 30 wards in the City of Racine, and these students were recognized for exemplary
RUSD, however, had nothing to do with developing these students’ understanding of the importance of voting. After having initially supporting the event, the district caved to right-wing pressure and decided not to sponsor it as a school-sponsored trip.
In 2009, YES students led a community coalition to have Martin Luther King Jr. Day recognized as a school holiday by the school district; it’s shameful that RUSD is letting Belling set the terms for RUSD’s participation. We will go on without them, however — on Jan. 21, we will celebrate Dr. King’s legacy no matter what Belling or RUSD say about it.
Someone who thinks so little of Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims or Jews, and all working people has no moral authority to interfere with a day meant to celebrate one of our community’s greatest inspirations. Dr. King taught us the importance of defending the right to vote, of worker’s rights — all the things that RUSD and Belling are now saying are “partisan” or “political” activity. It used to be that everyone valued these things, that they were our shared values as a country, not controversial ones. Isn’t succumbing to someone who denigrates African- Americans, Latinos, immigrants, Jews, and Muslims and others the real controversy here?
These students have a right to celebrate Dr. King, and we are proud to support them, their parents who are Voces members and community partners. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
This is a lesson our children need to learn. That in spite of the school district caving in to Belling’s hateful rhetoric and bullying, our young leaders and adults are showing more courage and conviction in honoring Martin Luther King’s legacy. In fact, Belling might be offering them the best example of why getting involved is so important in the first place.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz is executive director of Voces de la Frontera.