Paying off a bad check

Tom Durkin is a multimedia writer and editor who lives in Nevada City

The two most shameful atrocities in the history of the United States are the brutal enslavement of black Africans and the “ethnic cleansing”—genocide—of American Indians.

President Andrew Jackson trafficked in slaves, and he was the zealous sponsor of the “benevolent” Indian Removal Act of 1830. The culmination of that legislation was the infamous “Trail of Tears,” where 25 percent of the Cherokee Nation—4,000 human beings—died on a brutal, forced march from Georgia to Oklahoma.

So, why is Jackson still on this country’s $20 bill? How can we continue to honor a man who has so dishonored the highest ideals of our country?

Good questions.

Michael Shellenberger has a good answer. President of the progressive Breakthrough Institute, he and his colleague Tommy McDonald have proposed that we replace Jackson’s image on the $20 bill with a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.

I passionately believe this is an idea whose time has come.

Although “Old Hickory” was a popular two-term president in his time, he is a disgrace in our time.

King inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and he was martyred for his crusade for civil rights, leaving us his legacy of nonviolence with liberty and justice for all.

In his historic 1963 “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King declared that the marchers had come to cash a check, “a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

He continued, “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt … so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

As a white kid who attended National Association for the Advancement of Colored People meetings in Salina, Kan., in the early 1960s, I witnessed integration and racism. It was an ugly affair.

As a nation, there is no way we can atone for the actions of our ancestors, but there is a way we can acknowledge—in hard currency—that the United States of America is no longer a nation governed by old white men in suits in Washington, D.C.

If you agree, please sign the online petition to Congress and President George W. Bush at

I share King’s dream—and we shall overcome.