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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 1/8/17. A Unity Group attendee looks at a M.L. King Celebration Day flyer while at Eastdale Village Community Methodist Church on Sunday, January 8, 2017.
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David Cook

If You Go:

What: Annual MLK Day March

Where: Urban League on M.L. King Boulevard to Tivoli Theatre

When: Line up at 3:30, march begins at 4 p.m.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was once again arrested in Alabama, and sentenced to four days in the Birmingham Jail. As the hours passed, the white guards and wardens stood outside his cell, doing a little mocking, gawking and talking.

They told him he was wrong about integration.

Wrong about interracial marriage.

Wrong about equality.

Wrong to protest, march and demonstrate.

King being King, he did a little preaching of his own back to these white jailers. Started asking them questions:

My friend, how much are you earning?

How ramshackle is your home?

Can you afford to send your kids to college?

"And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, 'Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You're just as poor as Negroes,'" King said.

King tells this story in his sermon "The Drum Major Instinct," preached in the winter of '68, months before he was assassinated. Most of the sermon, easily found online, deals with the itchy, restless way the human ego wants to be first, like a drum major at the front of the line.

"This desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive of human life," he said.

Halfway through the sermon, King shifts from the individual ego to the collective way humans try to trump one another. Racism, King said, is the drum major instinct writ large. Rather than keep up with the Joneses, we oppress them.

"A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first," he said.

Those white guards outside his cell? They had their white skin and not much more. That's what King tried to teach them.

He was imprisoned.

But they were, too.

By an economy that grinds up the poor.

By dysfunctional schools and out-of-price colleges.

By a ruling class, hidden away on Wall Street and in Washington.

By the pollution of racism, which mars and distorts the heart, spirit and mind.

"The poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, he is forced to support his oppressors," King said. "And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he's superior because his skin is white — and can't hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out."

Here on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, we are also on the eve of President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration day. It is a dizzying intersection, and difficult to imagine two American figures more unlike one another.

Yet both men reveal something to America. King showed us our moral failures, the violence of white supremacy against the black American body.

Trump? His campaign showed us the way we've neglected rural America, the ghost-town hopelessness inflicted on the poor white family in the 21st-century economy.

Yet what if these two parts of America have more in common than we realize?

What if the coal mines and the ghetto, as different racially as anywhere in the U.S., are actually suffering from similar sorts of injustice?

You know what? You ought to be marching with us.

One example of many: In the 2014-15 school year, 97 percent of the students at the mostly black Howard School were considered economically disadvantaged.

Miles away, at mostly white Sequoyah High, roughly 70 percent of students were considered economically disadvantaged.

In the 2015-16 school-year, at mostly black Brainerd High, 95 percent of students scored below basic competency level in algebra.

At Sequoyah, 84 percent did.

The average ACT score at Howard was 15.3.

At Sequoyah, 16.4.

The percentage of students college-ready in all four ACT subjects at Brainerd? One percent.

At Sequoyah? One percent, also.

These numbers, researched by Dr. Ken Chilton at Tennessee State University, suggest that black and white poverty parallel one another, that the "tenacious gravity," as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, that pulls down so many black students and families may also strangle students and families in rural, white America.

You know what? You ought to be marching with us.

Monday afternoon, hundreds will gather for the annual MLK Day March.

What if there were as many whites as blacks?

What if the future of American protest was able to merge the neglect of rural America with the violence of inner-city America?

Want to make America great again?

March, protest and build community together.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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