Fit for King 

Opinion: "Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies never looked for easy. They tackled our mega-problems and did bold things. So should we."

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I've been an admirer of Martin Luther King Jr. since entering college in the early 1960s, and twice had brief visits with him while working in the civil rights and anti-war movements. I don't pretend to know the best way to honor him during this week of remembrances and celebration. In any discussion about fulfilling a legacy it's difficult to suppress personal preferences or to speculate in a meaningful way about what King would have us do today.

But clues lie in King's life of carefully chosen service. We know his first duty wasn't political expedience but "the Lord's will," and we know the causes to which his colleagues such as John Lewis remain dedicated. We know that King's priorities always lay in the human crucible of race, poverty and war.

It isn't a stretch to say he would be steadfast in his commitment to human rights in all its contemporary permutations, or that he would stand shoulder to shoulder with Pope Francis in opposing armed conflict, or that he would push us to aid the poor and expand opportunity at home and across our planet.

With that in mind, here are some concrete ways we can honor King this week:

1. We should think big. We can send this message to Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, Virginia's representatives in the U.S. Senate: Support President Barack Obama's initiatives to further peace in the most volatile part of the world — the Middle East. That means coupling vigorous diplomacy and oversight with existing aid to insurgents opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to eliminate the chemical weapons in that country. And it means supporting Secretary of State John Kerry's diplomatic attempts to find a solution to the growing nuclear capabilities in Iran — not exacerbating the situation with harsher sanctions when we now seem to have the right balance between economic pressure and friendly negotiations.

2. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and great disparities of wealth and opportunity remain pervasive, advocates of new anti-poverty programs will face much opposition. President Obama has announced limited assistance (but no new appropriations) for five Promise Zones nationwide. The zones are community collaborations aimed at creating and expanding economic, educational and housing opportunities in defined neighborhoods. The president needs to go beyond such gestures and educate the American public about the value of carefully defined, highly focused taxpayer investments in infrastructure, work-force development, apprenticeships, community colleges, vocational training and other programs, which could help millions of men and women become more independent and productive community members. I'm talking about massive capital injections, largely targeted at areas such as Richmond, where the city's poverty rate is 26 percent, and concentrated in neighborhoods where life expectancy is 20 years less than in the affluent West End.

3. In Richmond, specifically, we should support those who focus daily on the city's anti-poverty efforts. If expanded public transportation is vital to job development, we must make it happen. The same goes for regional responsibility sharing. If Mayor Dwight Jones' ballpark proposal is really about economic development, then his administration should spell this out clearly. Let's see details on the anticipated impact on jobs, how much revenues will exceed cost to taxpayers, minority procurement and potential affordable housing.

A better life for many will be good for business, but it's also a moral obligation. So are certain historical acknowledgements. The slave trade and African Burial Ground sites must receive due respect. The implementation of this development will reflect our character as a city. Instead of (Insert Commercial Name) Stadium, let's declare this Freedom Park. Richmond Free Press Publisher Ray Boone has suggested renaming Broad Street, the main gateway to the new development, after Nelson Mandela. Naming it after either Mandela or King would show the nation that Richmond, former Confederate capital and a hub of the slave trade, is now repentant, united and dedicated to the future.

Such tasks as these won't be easy. But King and his allies never looked for easy. They tackled our mega-problems and did bold things. So should we. S

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Ben Ragsdale, a 45-year resident of Richmond, is a retired community organizer and public relations manager. In 2012 he was a presidential elector for Barack Obama.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writers, and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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