A Dream of MLK Today - Aging Against the Machine

A Dream of MLK Today - Aging Against the Machine

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Fifty. This week’s anniversary celebration of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom resounds with a worthwhile mix of critical reassessment and historical pride for the progress made since then and yet to be accomplished. But for my Boomer generation, the tumultuous events bookended by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his tragic assassination five year later also arc across a half-century of our lives.

Fifty. Fifty years? How unsettling for aging Boomers, who once pictured nostalgia on an old-timey gazebo—echoing with the Beatles’ refrain, “It was 20 years ago today, Sargent Pepper taught the band to play.” Twenty years? Ha! Just a couple of generational blinks.

More than a cause for personal reflection, though, it’s hard not to wonder about King himself. Had he survived James Earl Ray’s gun sight, he would be 84 today. And I’d like to think he’d be as up on political hip-hop, like Goodie Mob’s new “Age Against the Machine” album released Thursday (after 14 years their poke at Rage Against the Machine), as, say, Curtis Mayfield or Odetta.

Younger Than Mandela

Still relatively youthful, King today would be 11 years younger than Nelson Mandela, who was still lifting his voice for justice until his recent illness, and five years younger than fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jimmy Carter. Both are members of The Elders, the global council of senior leaders currently chaired by Kofi Annan, age 75, who actively continues to negotiate for peace and freedom.

Had King lived on, of course, he would not be the indelible worldwide icon. Yet, I think it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that his graying countenance would join those of the other activists on The Elders’ website and living rounds. The Longevity Revolution is not only televised and on the Internet, it represents a new level of later-life vigor empowering more and more people to build on their active legacies long in defiance of stereotypical aging.

Of course, the Longevity Revolution can swing both ways. One of the more unsettling factoids I’ve heard lately about our aging world is that the average age of the Rolling Stones exceeds that of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts, 58, likely has years left to revamp the Constitution in his conservative image.

Still, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 80, made it clear in last Sunday’s (Aug. 25) New York Times that regardless of two bouts with cancer--she works out twice a week now—she has no intention of stepping down. Could she become the first centenarian justice, never to give up? Ginsberg is set on countering Roberts’ majority on issues, such as voting rights and job discrimination, subjects of her recent dissents—and major themes of King’s efforts a half century ago.

Were King alive and an activist ager today, it’s easy to imagine him expanding on his primary dreams, as have those among The Elders. (He could claim seniority in the group over such members as Ela Bhatt, founder of Self-Employed Women's Association of India, who turns 80 on Sept. 7, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, who will be 82 on Oct. 7.)

A Life-Span View of Poverty

Although I’d fully expect King to have elevated his resonant voice on the travesties of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, I don’t think it’s a stretch of imagination to believe he’d have embraced a life-span view of the economic security issues for lower-income Americans throughout their working and retirement years.

After all, since King was killed while championing the rights of striking sanitation workers is Memphis, labor negotiations and strikes have focused not only on traditional pay and working conditions, but increasingly on pensions and health care, including retirement health protections.

As King would have aged, he would surely have seen elders’ security underlying his principle concerns. Even travesties of the criminal justice system—intensified by three-strikes laws and “stop, question and frisk” policing--have yielded a growing population of elderly prisoners. (See “The Other Death Sentence: Aging and Dying in America’s Prisons” by investigative journalist James Ridgeway, and “Graying Prisoners” by Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch.)

It’s always risky to project viewpoints on an historic figure who has passed. But I feel confident that a living Martin Luther King, whose very legacy is based in unsung and often unpopular causes, would have grown especially cognizant of how challenges to economic and health security jeopardize the very health and longevity of lower-income minorities, women and other vulnerable groups as they age.

Last fall, for example, the MacArthur Foundation Network on Aging in Society released a report showing that both African American men and white women who have low educational levels live 10 years shorter than whites with advanced academic degrees. Education is not only an issue for youth.

It’s easy enough to report on this or that new study, but as with research on issues of race, gender and class, the stream of scholarly findings on aging floods into a stagnant pool reflecting darkly on 21st century life in the United States unless things change.

Connecting the Dots From Age to Justice

Here are only some of the kind of factual dots I believe King could not have avoided connecting now:

• One-third of Americans 65-plus are “economically insecure—lacking the resources needed to meet basic food, housing, and medical needs,” according to a 2012 United States of Aging survey by the National Council on Aging, UnitedHealthcare and USA Today.

• More than half of Americans worry that their savings and income will not be sufficient to last them for the rest of their lives, according to a 2013 follow-up of the same poll released last month.

• Almost six in 10 African Americans and nearly half of Latinos are concerned they won’t be able to pay for a nursing home or other long-term care, compared to 41 percent of whites, found a new national poll by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and SCAN Foundation.

• Despite calls to cut Social Security, about half of older Latinos, African Americans and Asians relied on Social Security for almost all of their income in 2008, compared to one in three whites, according to UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research.

• Jobs for older workers? In spite of the Roberts court having made it tougher to prove age discrimination in 2009, federal age bias claims have climbed to 25,000 a year, with many more filed at the state level.

Alive and Tweeting?

Were King alive and kicking today, I’d like to think he’d not only be among the fast-growing ranks of elders going online and social networking, but he’d be taking on the Digital Divide as a serious economic divide—and health--issue for impoverished seniors.

For instance, in July AARP’s Public Policy Institute released an issue paper showing that U.S. Internet providers are resisting efforts for them to bring high-speed connections to lower-income and rural areas. But so-called broadband connections could enable more seniors to live independently, staying more healthy, safe and out of nursing homes. That’s because new technology makes it possible for elders to reduce their isolation from family, and even to see their doctors by video and get medical tests at home.

In spite of these potentially life- and budget-saving technologies, though, the AARP report says major commercial Internet providers “have convinced 19 state legislatures to prevent or discourage cities or towns from owning or operating high-speed Internet networks” that might help seniors and their families, but cut into their market share.

Martin Luther King at 84? You wouldn’t want to miss his Twitter feeds to be found-where else?—@StillDreaming.

This article was made possible through a grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies for coverage of elders' security issues.