The Year of Moving Forward

The Year of Moving Forward
At our 4 person wedding reception in DC

Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King Jr: Pro Public Health and Anti-War

Since 1900 the average life expectancy in the United States has increased 30 years. Of that, 25 years can be attributed to advances in public health, and the other five years to advances in medicine.

The differences might not be readily apparent, but in general, public health initiatives that contributed to extended life include things like food safety and better understanding of nutrition, decrease in tobacco use, improvements in workplace safety, family planning, maternal and child care, water safety and fluoridation, vaccination programs, seat belt use and sanitation.

Advances in medicine, while important from an individual standpoint, do not contribute that much statistically. These include things such as the development of new diagnostic equipment, advanced procedures and new drugs to treat illnesses.

Today we honor the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King understood the importance of public health and the role that it plays in the health of our nation. Consider the following:

"One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage is in the final analysis as significant as the physician, for if he doesn't do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity."

(Martin Luther King, Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson (Grand Central Publishing, 2001), pp. 352-35)

King was referring to the low wages the sanitation workers received and was fighting against the institutionalized poverty forced upon blacks by their own government. But he also made the point that in the control of disease, sanitation is a must. In the 19th century immigration and urbanization caused a population shift that led to overcrowding in cities with inadequate waste disposal systems. Often garbage was piled in the streets or thrown over a fence giving food and shelter to vermin and contributing to disease outbreaks.

By 1900 public health departments had been established in 40 of the 45 states. From the 1930’s through the 1950’s, great strides were made in solid waste disposal, as well as sewage and water treatment and hygiene practices. Vermin control, related to garbage control, also contributed to the reduction of disease.

I believe King would also be an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq. Here is what he said about the Vietnam War:

"And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

(Beyond Vietnam speech delivered April 4, 1967. The quote can be found in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (Warner Books, 2002), p. 142)

To the left of this column you can see the Cost of the war. $487 billion. Almost half a trillion. Consider the job training and education that could be provided with that money. Not to mention the cost in lives lost or damaged. One example is the number of men and women returning with traumatic brain injury, and an army task force suggests that 10 to 20 percent of those returning for Iran and Afghanistan have brain injuries. This story from September explains how the problem is insidious and how the effects can be long term.

So yes, the war in Iraq is a “demonic, destructive suction tube” destroying the lives of our young people who are fighting as well as hindering education of students not yet old enough to be sucked in.

There are so many ways in which this war is wrong, and Dr. King would be one of its most outspoken critics. Unlike the ever changing heated rhetoric that we hear on a daily basis (from presidential candidates), his words are set, his opposition is unchallengeable, and his positions unchangeable. And they apply today.

Some of the information I used here comes from Soulforce , an organization whose mission statement reads:

“The mission of Soulforce is to cut off homophobia at its source – religious bigotry…We apply the creative direct action principles taught by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to peacefully resist injustice and demand full equality for LGBT citizens and same-gender families.”

Information on sanitation and control of infectious diseases and public health can be found here.

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