In the past two weeks, I have been writing about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in anticipation of the unveiling of the MLK monument on the Washington Mall on August 28th. The MLK Memorial is significant for numerous reasons, but two reasons in particular stick out to me. 1.) The MLK Memorial is the first memorial of an African-American or non U.S. president to be placed on the Washington Mall. 15 years in the making, with millions and millions of dollars donated to raise this mountain of a monument. Lucky for us, Arizona, New Hampshire and Utah couldn’t stand in the way of this dedication to The King, like they did when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was proposed and put into effect by President Ronald Reagan. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was first observed in 1986, and was finally recognized by all 50 states… in 2000, when Utah finally stepped out of the 50’s and made it a state holiday. Arizona Senator John McCain opposed the idea of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (which should have been reiterated over and over again somehow during the 2008 presidential campaign. I don’t know how that slipped through the cracks.) but he eventually got on board after losing favoritism in the public’s eye for himself and his state in 1992. As for Utah, I think it took them so long to approve the holiday because nobody told them it wasn’t 1959 anymore.
2.) The MLK Memorial romanticizes King as a preacher who advocated nonviolence and peaceful negotiations to end the prejudice and racist era in America. This is a momentous event for Black America because the greatest icon of our people is getting his due credit. The name Martin Luther King, Jr. is synonymous with civil rights and social justice, for people of all races, religions, creeds—He did it for everybody. I disagree that his daughter said King would have opposed gay marriage. I think he would have embraced homosexuals because it would be consistent with his dream—a world where everyone “will not be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” A world where everyone can sit at the table of brotherhood and join hands—Black, White, Christian, Muslim, straight, gay, Democrat, Republican—and celebrate unity and harmony. No prejudice, no discrimination, all love. Martin Luther King’s dream was bigger than him, bigger than all of us. The least we can do is memorialize him with a monument.
It pleases the rest of America too, because it holds our greatest champion in the image in which they want to view him—as a passive aggressive civil rights leader. He was the safe Negro, one who won’t hurt or fight them. Don’t get me wrong; King deserves the memorial, the recognition, and the near God-like admiration. Like I said in my last column, King changed America like no other man before him did. He preached nonviolence and love, but he was still a man, and his patience did grow thin.
“Life is a continual story of shattered dreams.”
He had wanted to work with America for freedom and equality, not against it. He pleaded and asked, but he never demanded, and he began to grow tired. King dedicated a decade to the Civil Rights Movement, with no end in sight. He was still working hard, especially after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when so many more adversaries grew after recognizing the power of the Movement. He wanted change, so he became more radical in his disgust and distrust of the United States. The King believed that African-Americans has done more than enough to benefit and prosper America—fighting in every war the U.S. has ever been involved in, including the Civil War where Blacks fought for both the Union and the Confederacy, slaves building the financial backbone of the country through cotton picking, slavery in general—and that it was time for America to start doing something for its most unappreciated and unsatisfied citizens. King had done something for America, and it was time America did something for him. King stopped asking, and started demanding. His Dream was slowly starting to feel unfilled.
King sensed that the fight would continue, but a new battle was waging within his own people. There was a growing tension between King’s SCLC, nonviolent and pacifist approach and the militant, extremist, and growing Black Power and Nation of Islam movements. The youth could not get with King and the civil rights movement because they felt it was prehistoric and useless. Nas said it best in his collaborative song with The Game called “Letter to the King” about the youth’s apathy to King:
“As a kid I ain’t relate really/I would say your Dream speech jokingly/’Til your world awoken me/First I thought you were passive/soft one who ass kissed/I was young but honest/I was feeling Muhammad.”
In examining our history, there have always been clashing perspectives and personalities dueling for leadership in the African-American community. King was our Anointed One, he was our Moses. We’ve been searching for someone to fill that void ever since April 4, 1968. We feel that we need a leader, a savior, someone we can call on when we’re in despair. Someone we can look at and see ourselves. Follow the leader—well which one do we follow? It’s either Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. DuBois; Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, Malcolm X or the Nation of Islam, Ali or Liston/Frazier/Foreman. We even see it in over-hyped, sometimes competitive and sometimes fatal rap battles: Biggie or Pac, Nas or Jay-Z, 50 Cent or Ja Rule, Nicki or Kim, etc. Somebody always has to be the chief, the alpha male, the H.N.I.C. There is a constant duality of influential leaders in the Black community. It’s because we’re so diverse and yet so divisive that we have so many persons trying to be the shepherd. Meanwhile, every other ethnicity are out here establishing more businesses and making millions off of African-Americans.
Those young, rebellious, angry black men and women felt that King’s rhetoric didn’t create results. They wanted action, and if they didn’t get what they wanted, they would revolt. King would never do something like that, America thought. America believed King would never write a sermon like Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s scolding, infamous speech brought to the nation’s attention during the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, damning America for its sins against its people and for its involvement in international conflict instead of taking care of home first. How wrong they were. In the twilight of his career, King did start to share the same sentiments as Jeremiah Wright, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and countless others towards America the Ugly. King was becoming a radical. King’s last speech, found on his body after he was assassinated, was a work in progress titled “Why America May Go to Hell.” America doesn’t like that side of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty, to make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to Hell.”
King has to be marching down the road in peaceful protests for America to be comfortable to go so far as to champion his lifelong work alongside the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. He has to be begging and pleading with America to give us our freedom. America doesn’t want its civil rights leaders provoking the people in questioning their actions, like King did about Vietnam. King vehemently opposed the Vietnam War, and his stance against the war was this: how can America go to Southeast Asia and continue with a war it had been waging since the late 50’s, when there was a war going on back on its own shores. A war against 200 years of Jim Crow and inequality. A war on immoral behavior and social injustice.
“But I heard the voice of Jesus, saying still to fight on.”
He was angry at America. He was fed up with the government and the Vietnam War. He hated Lyndon Johnson. I hope that none of this gets lost in history as we idolize King. I hope that the King of his later years—the radical, the one fighting for economic equality, the one who was writing “Why America May Go to Hell”—is remembered just as the one who preached that nonviolence is love. King was too dynamic of a leader and a man to be pigeonheld as a passive aggressive civil rights leader.
I think if James Earl Ray hadn’t assassinated the King, his unfinished speech “Why America May Go to Hell” would have shaken the core of the American psyche. America thought it was all over. The ‘whites only’ signs had come down, the schools had been desegregated, no more dogs running wild or hoses being sprayed on people. It’s in the past now they thought, you black folks can go on home with your freedom—but King wasn’t done. King was becoming more radical, not only with his effort to end the Vietnam War, but by trying to create economic equality for African-Americans.
If King was alive today, he would have marched up to Congress and have a few words for them about the debt ceiling and the bleak state of the economy. Obama might not have gotten them back from recess, but King could have. One big thing to always remember about American politics and socioeconomic changes—whatever is going on in America, affects African-Americans even worse than anyone else. That’s not playing the race card or being the martyr, it is the truth. King knew what would be coming down the road—economic turmoil. That’s why King threw himself into the Memphis sanitation strike and the Poor People’s Campaign, an ambitious attempt to stop Washington in its tracks by having the nation’s poorest people descend on D.C. for economic rights. King knew that the only bigger battle than racism in America is classism. What’s the point in being free if we’re poor?
“The vast majority of Negroes in our country are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
We can only imagine what King would have said and done if he were alive today. There is no doubt in my mind that he’d be pissed at Congress for putting what’s better for their party and their pockets before what’s better for the people. You know he would have a fit over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as the slow government response to Hurricane Katrina. With the condition that New Orleans is in years after Katrina, King would probably still be down there. King would have been there mourning for the victims of 9/11, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Haiti earthquake and the nuclear power plant meltdown and tsunami crisis in Japan. Who cares if he would have loved or hated Obama, in his day a black president was unfathomable, but I can imagine he still would have held him accountable. That’s what’s missing in our homes, in our community, and in our leadership: accountability. King lives on through us, but only if we hold ourselves accountable.
We got to keep marching y’all.