Guest Commentary: MLK’s Lesson on How Structural Change Can Happen Locally in Davis

Photo by Xan Griffin on Unsplash

By Alan Hirsch

This year’s Davis city-sponsored Martin L. King celebration is on Peace Activism. It will take place on Monday, January 15, at 10 am at the Veterans Memorial Center.

This 53-second viral YouTube video of Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture discussing peace and justice provides the context in which King was working.

I believe local cities, especially progressive Davis, can best honor King by learning from him about how change happens—what it feels like when you are in the middle of the story.  We can learn by analogy what it looks like when a local community is grappling with deep structural change—and how local civic leaders respond when they recognize the need for a change in the traditional way of doing things.

King’s goal in 1960’s was to reform the structural evil of Jim Crow, deeply ingrained in the culture of Southern cities.

Today, we are in the middle of a story of how to deal with the climate crisis—a  society dependent on burning fossil fuels, creating a crisis for long-term survival.

For Dr. King the obstacle to change was not Washington but local government. The Supreme Court had just equipped local governments with tools through rulings like Brown vs. Board of Education. The Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations were sympathetic, yet in the 1960s South, it was local businesses & governments that resisted. They sought to first maintain peace, of the status quo, fearing that change would be disruptive, leading to divisiveness and disorder.

Similarly, in addressing climate change, the State of California has established strong goals and policies. It has provided local governments with tools under the environmental impact process to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Local leaders are aware of what is at stake for climate. During a discussion of the I-80 freeway widening January 9th Davis Councilmember Will Arnold shared what he learned when he was a Caltrans employee.  He read from Caltrans HQ policy that states freeway widening does not fix congestion for long and also undermines the state climate change plan…. local Caltrans district need to stop advancing these projects.  Arnold summed it up dramatically: “We know this, widening freeways is “insanity.”

We have forgotten that King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was not addressed to segregationists nor the KKK, but rather to moderates, seven pastors, and one liberal rabbi in town who wanted to end segregation—but were gradualists.

These moderate Southern integrationists published a letter in the newspaper urging the Black community to ignore King when he came to Birmingham. Their letter was titled “Law, Order, and Common Sense.” The Birmingham Black newspaper and most Black religious leaders were also wary of King’s confrontational approach to the status quo to speed change—even though they lived the reality that the Jim Crow status quo was wrong.

Similarly, our local civic leaders all believe in climate change but are challenged to act with the urgency required of a crisis.  For the I-80 widening project they are afraid of contradicting the powerful local Caltrans District 3—an institution whose existence is defined by a tradition of widening freeways, not building transit. Afraid of turning down federal down payment money for project that continues the “insanity.”

King’s 1963 famous “Letter” called out the moderates for telling the Black man, “We believe in equality, just not yet.”

In the end the Davis City Council took a similar “not yet” stance despite Will Arnold’s plea. Great statements of principle were made on climate change and agreeing that freeway widening won’t work by four of the five members of the council, but in the end, they failed to make a council statement advocating investing in transit and against local Caltrans freeway plans.  Two abstentions killed it: “I don’t know enough yet,” said one.  The other has said she prioritizes a good relationship with Caltrans.

The result is the continuation of the status quo tradition—to keep the peace and avoid conflict.

Sign the Petition to make it clear we are in a climate crisis and need to make the structural changes to end what Mayor Will Arnold called “the definition of insanity” of a transportation system that has only freeways—but no quality public transit.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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