Originally posted Jan. 19, 2011
Across America celebrations, breakfasts, speeches, service projects and singing marked the 25th anniversary of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The celebration fell on Monday, Jan. 17, and many embraced a day off. Multi-racial groups broke bread together. Political leaders pontificated on the need for unity and lionized the civil rights leader. Program attendees left with fuzzy feelings, kumbayah dreams, believing a fitting tribute had been paid to the Baptist preacher from Georgia.
To celebrate the life of a man who tried to call an errant society to do greater justice and tried to appeal to America to be better is fitting.
But tributes should be grounded in the real life, the real vision and the real experience of the person. In Dr. King’s case, the holiday is dominated by talk of “The Dream,” analysis of “The State of the Dream,” and his life is examined on the backdrop of a single speech made during the March on Washington in 1963.
The video clip most often shown was Dr. King declaring, “I have a dream today.” But the speech was not about a Dream, it was part of a movement to press for economic parity and a real fight against poverty–a fight America could not wage with resources pouring into the Vietnam War.
Few speak of Dr. King’s admonition to the United States that the Negro had tried to cash the check of equality and opportunity with America but once again the check had been returned for insufficient funds. That sentiment is a long way from having a dream and an apt description of the All-American nightmare.
Few speak of the theologian’s position that if he called on angry youths in stifling ghettos to be patient, trust in the good of society and express their views in non-violent ways, then moral correctness demanded that he condemn the war in Vietnam for the violence perpetuated on poor, Brown people and the misuse of millions of dollars in resources that could help the poor at home.
When Dr. King made that pronouncement, he lost friends, funders, status and media support.
“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization that has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam,” said Dr. King in a stirring speech delivered April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City. A year later, the man who advocated non-violence would be dead.
“Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”
Those words are far from the pleasant excerpts conveniently appropriated each year to mark this man’s life. Talk of ending violence abroad didn’t sit well with those who advocated war in Vietnam yesterday and it doesn’t sit well with those who like the idea of American engagement in perpetual war today. These warmongers and bloodsuckers of the poor don’t want any words that might stir the mind and imagination to call for real change and peace right now.
Dr. King was calling for a Poor People’s Campaign when death overtook him. How many of the politicians who readily sang “We Shall Overcome” in a tribute to Dr. King have thought about or done anything to alleviate poverty and serve those at the bottom of society? While kind tributes have been offered to Dr. King for 25 years, workers have seen wages, benefits and rights fall and more and more of the country’s wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. What would Dr. King think of this?
Performer Harry Belafonte was a supporter of Dr. King and walked with the civil rights leader at a time when it was not comfortable or fashionable. “Midway through the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. realized that the struggle for integration would ultimately become a struggle for economic rights. I remember the last time we were together, at my home, shortly before he was murdered. He seemed quite agitated and preoccupied, and I asked him what the problem was. ‘I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply,’ he said. ‘We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house,’ ” said Mr. Belafonte.
“That statement took me aback. It was the last thing I would have expected to hear, considering the nature of our struggle, and I asked him what he meant. ‘I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had,’ he answered. ‘And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.’ ”
These are words and sentiments too often hidden from view and too often ignored by those who know better. It’s sad because each year Dr. King’s life is commemorated is another year to consider the principles and principled stands the man took based on what he believed.
It is also fitting to remember that the man called a drum major for justice was spied on and lied on by the federal government and was the subject of intense hatred from the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It is easy to embrace a man who has been edited, sanitized and repackaged–but it is not a fitting tribute, it is an insult when the “made man” has little to do with the real person.