Memorializing a Work In Progress?

Posted: August 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

I’ve been watching/reading the coverage of the newly opened memorial and have had a flood of thoughts. First, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an amazing man. His personal conviction, unflappable courage, and virtuoso mastery of the English language have given each of us an opportunity to see a public life well lived. One of my favorite speeches is his fateful last speech in Memphis. His clarity of thought, conviction, power, and purpose are stunning. I’ve included a moving tribute video of this last speech [I will add that I do not support the “fight the new world order” sentiment or whatever rabble appears at the end of the video]

King was clearly an important and transcendental figure in world history. I fear, however, that the ways in which the U.S. celebrates King as a solitary leader of the Civil Rights Movement flies in the face of the actual movement. There were countless persons involved in the fight against Jim Crow-Apartheid in America: men, women, persons of color, white persons, immigrants, and persons of nearly every faith. To reduce this coalition of the conscience to one person is a dangerous reduction. I understand that American history overwhelmingly relies on the “Great Men” approach, but in 2011 I feel it’s time we move beyond this. I crave the stories of White folks in Indiana that helped tear down a KKK cross from a Black neighbors yard. I want to hear about the Black Panthers providing ambulances to the poor neighborhoods that were refused service. I want to hear about international efforts to end hatred in this country through peace and compassion. I want our story.

I also wonder if the monument may be a convenient way for White America to show how sympathetic they are by celebrating this figure. King is a safe foray in to civil disobedience. To celebrate a complex individual like Malcolm X is a bridge too far for polite, White society. An independent read of MLK, however, shows that he changed his role near the end of his life. He realized that Vietnam was an abomination and that the war on the poor being waged by the wealthy was an issue that needed more of his attention. If you pull articles from the last year of his life you’ll see the hatred these efforts were met with by the press. Even within the legacy of King we see an example where the consonant is made great and the controversial (but morally correct) is disregarded and diminished.

I long for the day when the United States of America puts an end to the injustices King died for. Did you know schools are more segregated now than the day before the National Guard escorted the first few black students to school in Little Rock, Arkansas? Have you seen the wealth, achievement, and arrest rate gaps in Black v. White America? Have you seen the type of health coverage offered the working poor in our country? King fought these battles day after day. A monument to these incomplete efforts is a stinging reminder of a dream not yet realized.

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