This Thing Called Courage

Monday, January 21, 2008

Remembering MLK


I was thinking about MLK today on me and Fionn's mad-long walk (during which we had a wonderful encounter with a red-tailed hawk UP CLOSE). I think what their greatest gift was-- and by they I mean Bobby Kennedy and he, and people like them, i.e., Gandhi-- is that they bring out the best in us, and, therefore, the best in our world.
I can't even imagine anymore what it's like to have a leader, especially a political leader, one looks up to, and admires, and is inspired by. Anyway-- this is from today's AlterNet: following this, there's the speech Bobby made at the death of MLK, including an audio link.

Reclaiming King: Beyond "I Have a Dream"

By Adam Howard, AlterNet


"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." -- Dr. Martin Luther King jr, "Letter from Birmingham Jail", April 1963

The "I Have a Dream" speech has become a cliché. It's played every Martin Luther King Day and perhaps again during our so-called "Black History Month." With each passing year it feels more distant to me, more quaint. Its power has always been its simplicity and clarity, but its unassailable message has turned the man who delivered it into more of a myth than a human being made of flesh and blood.

I have vivid memories from my childhood of watching the famous speech in class and hearing an obnoxious white classmate of mine mock King's dramatic tones and rhetoric while other white students chuckled uncomfortably. Aside from wanting to strangle this kid, in part because I was so fascinated with King, I also felt far removed from the black and white images on the screen and from the dire times during which he and his supporters lived. Even his name -- the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., intimidated me. It felt more literary than literal.

My father is a Black Baptist preacher in the King tradition, he even attended King's alma mater, Morehouse College. As a child, I was encouraged to essentially worship King. His striking face adorns several walls of our home. The sound of his voice moved me to tears before I could even comprehend what he was saying. It was the sound of truth. Truth so deep it both hurt and inspired. As I grew older I was indoctrinated with the King story and was encouraged by my father to explore beyond King's 1963 plea for racial equality.

After his life was tragically cut short, as was a similarly honest and righteous Robert Kennedy a few months later, we, not just in the black community, but a nation as a whole, have spent the past forty years trying to grapple with his legacy. The mainstream media would like us to look at "I Have a Dream" and virtually nothing else. They can package that speech as a nice two-minute nostalgia clip. But I believe every good progressive American should look more to the King of '68 for inspiration.

By that time King's house had already been firebombed. He'd been wiretapped, stabbed, and assaulted with a brick. He was never uncontroversial and although he never officially claimed to be a member of any political party his positions and message were unapologetically progressive. These were in some ways darker times than his earlier more celebrated days during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the peace he helped achieve in Birmingham.

During the final two years of his life, King took on the far more complex de facto racism of northern cities like Chicago, addressed labor inequality, and took a very bold and highly criticized stance against the Vietnam War:


"As I have walked," King told the crowd assembled in Riverside Church a year before his assassination, "among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.


But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."

By 1968, King's opposition to Vietnam and his unwavering commitment to nonviolence made him largely an outcast. The far right still despised him and everything he represented. But even more telling was the rejection he received from the left. He endured editorials from the Democratic establishment calling for a moratorium on civil rights and a break from marches. He was called a "disservice to his cause" and his people. New, younger voices in the Civil Rights Movement began ridiculing his non-violent stance, calling him out-of-touch and out-of-date.

Only the anti-war movement was prescient enough to see the wisdom of King's views at that time. In fact, there were efforts to recruit King to run for president on a ticket with activist and baby book guru Dr. Benjamin Spock, but King wasn't interested.

Now, forty years after his death, it seems like almost everyone wants to claim King. Mitt Romney got himself embroiled in controversy when he claimed to have seen his father march with King as a child, only to have to later admit that he didn't actually see anything of the sort and the "with" was most likely only in spirit as opposed to actuality.

On the Democratic side, Senators Obama and Clinton sparred when Obama tried to draw parallels between himself and King and Clinton tried to, in a characteristically self-serving way, suggest that King would not have been able to see his dream fulfilled (with the '64 Civil Rights Act, and '65 Voting Rights Act) if it hadn't been for legislators like LBJ (i.e. her).

The King they all hope to be identified with is the beatific, gloriously positive King of 1963, but I am fairly certain that none of them would be as comfortable linking themselves to the irascible, fiercely antiwar and increasingly radical King of 1968.

That King would most likely have just as vociferously opposed the Iraq War today as he did the Vietnam War then. This is the King who launched a "Poor People's Campaign," a thoroughly progressive campaign that was considered ambitious for its time and whose job has yet to be completed in part because King was killed, but also because its goal, of organizing America’s poor to fight for economic justice with regards to both compensation and treatment, was so large that no single leader could accomplish it on their own. The "Poor People's Campaign" extended beyond the African-American community. The goal was a "multiracial army of the poor" including whites, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans.

King traveled to severely impoverished communities with camera crews to shed light on poverty in America, knowing that there would be no symbolic victories or positive press coverage. King called for a "radical redistribution of economic power" in 1968, words that no establishment politician would be happy to associate themselves with expressing today.

During this period King was growing more certain of the inevitability of his own death. Only 39-years old, with young children and his wife at home, he put his life on the line every single day for nearly a decade. None of our current crop of candidates on either side can hold a candle to what he experienced in terms of burden and sacrifice.

Most of us know the vague details of Dr. King's murder in April of 1968, but few point out that he was in Memphis at the time in support of a racially polarizing labor dispute involving black sanitation workers. "All labor has dignity," Dr. King told the striking workers, "but you're doing another thing. You are reminding not only Memphis, but the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages."

Right before his death he had been delayed getting on a flight because of a bomb threat and his mortality was very much on his mind when he delivered his final -- and some argue greatest -- speech, in which he said:


Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Even if the spiritual content and motivation of his words don't ring true for you, the essence of his bearing certainly should. King was a fighter and he would not relent in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Forty years after his death, our nation is in a state of crisis economically, socially, racially, internationally and environmentally. We may be looking at yet another election for the presidency where we may have little choice but to pick between the lesser of two evils.

And yet King's passion is still with us, only if we choose to access it. Just because he was motivated by love and peace, that doesn't mean that his message needed to be soft spoken and genteel. It can be and should be about reclaiming power. King himself said:


"There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love."

So this year, when the cable network repeat the "I Have a Dream" speech over and over again and intersperse it with the talking heads that bicker about whether or not King's hope for racial equality has been achieved, think of the King of '68 who fought for labor, fought against war, and launched a powerful movement that is very much still alive today and whose work is still not finished.

Adam Howard is the editor of AlterNet's PEEK.
Bobby's Speech:
"I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justic for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence their evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization -- black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rathe difficult times.My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we've had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.Let us dedicate to ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people."


0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home