U.S. Sen. Edward Markey led off the forum on Sunday with a rally speech.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — U.S. Sen. Edward Markey invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday in rallying Democrats for the progressive cause.
Speaking to open a gubernatorial forum put on by the Democratic organization Berkshire Brigades, Markey said King would want unemployment benefits to be extended, health care expanded for all and the minimum wage being raised.
"His challenge to us changed everything and as we gather to celebrate and remember this great man, we must ask ourselves, what would Dr. King say about the state of our country these days?" Markey said. "What would he expect from all of us? What would Dr. King say about the income inequality in the United States that he fought so fearlessly to eradicate?"
He said there are 46 million Americans living in poverty, households are making less than they did on average than in 1989 and one in three women are living in poverty.
"Women still make 77 cents on every dollar that a man earns. The average African-American woman earns 64 cents, the average Latina earns 55 cents compared to a white man," Markey said. "Closing the wage gap between men and women would cut the poverty rate in half for working women and their families and add nearly half a trillion dollars to the national economy."
Meanwhile, the top 1 percent of wage earners have seen their pay rise by 86 percent, he said. The unemployment rate is at 7 percent but 13 for African Americans and 11.5 for Hispanics. Emergency unemployment benefits have been debated in Congress and Republicans have fiercely opposed the extension.
"I think it is fundamentally wrong to blame people who have been laid off for their plight. If the jobs were there, they'd take them," Markey said, after his speech. "From a humane perspective, it is our responsibility to continue unemployment insurance until the federal government and the private sector creates the jobs that most of these workers would much rather have than being on unemployment."
He said there are threats to the food stamp program, disparities in health, gun violence and other violations of human rights.
"I believe the things that matter in America in 2014 are the same things that mattered in Dr. King's day — a quality education for all of our children; a good job at a fair wage; affordable health care for everyone," Markey said. "It is a right, not a privilege to have health care and we must let Obamacare be rolled out in our country. We must respect human rights.
"We must build strong, safe communities. These things that matter so much are beyond the reach of so many Americans. While many people in our country have been trying to climb the ladder of success, no matter how hard they work they are stuck in the same place."
But it is not just talking about the issues, he said. It takes action. He said he is spending his time in Washington working on those issues. Most recently Markey has pushed the president to release more funds to help pay for heating for those with low income.
"I work now every day in Washington with [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren, with [Rep.] Richie Neal to fight for you and all of the issues that you care about. I work with Mayor Dan Bianchi, with Dick Alcombright, Ben Downing, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Paul Mark, with Smitty, with Sheriff Tom Bowler to fight for all of these issues that you care about," he said.
"We have a duty to help those trapped in the clutches of poverty with programs like unemployment insurance, like increasing the minimum wage, Medicaid, low income heating assistance to those who need heating in the harsh winter."
He said he is working to prevent cuts to Section 8 housing, veterans services, head start programs, Social Security and Medicaid and wants to expand programs aimed to keep people from making multiple trips to prison. He says he is trying to pass legislation to decrease gun violence and programs to address global warming.
"A promise is not delivered just because it leaves our lips. A better America is not built just because we know it is possible. It takes action. It takes effort. It takes all of us together. It is a shared responsibility," he said.
Locally, Markey said he was part of the team of legislators who wrote to Time Warner Cable to keep NECN on Berkshire televisions. He claimed that was a success and doesn't feel any more work is needed there — so any thoughts of the Berkshires being removed from the Albany (N.Y.) television market isn't on the table.
But, Markey still says it is a success to keep the channel.
"The political activists need a 24-hour news station the way we need oxygen to breath. You needed that cable station and it is on. We're going to work to ensure that it stays on," he said.
Markey hasn't made any public appearances in the Berkshire since his election last June. However, he says he has been in town meeting with the mayors and Berkshire leaders about issues.
"We're continuing to work on environmental issues for the city of Pittsfield. We met earlier today. I also met with Mayor Alcombright," Markey said. "I'm going to continue to focus on the economic development issues that are important to the mayors out here to make sure that we do all that we can to help."