Several well known African Americans and countless unknowns like me have voiced awareness and varying levels of anger that Dr. Martin Luther King’s message of economic and social justice has been whitewashed and watered down to diversity and non-violence. In a time when the nation has been at war for 6 years, there are few mentions of his stance against the Vietnam War. The Poor People’s Campaign he envisioned before his death is referenced, but the aims of the campaign and its sociopolitical significance is never explored. King is used as an instrument to exalt and maintain the status quo. He is projected as the person most responsible for the success of the civil rights movement while the other giants of the era and those before them are rarely acknowledged. The imagery of the phrase, “I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama … will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers,” is lauded as having not entirely arrived but pretty damn close.
It is time to reclaim his message.
I believe we have arrived at a critical window of opportunity to begin reclamation of Dr. King’s voice. I believe with the current war in Iraq, the widening wealth gap, tentative economic status of the average worker, the sociopolitical impact of Katrina and the impending catastrophes of global warming, the time is ripe to begin MLK re-education. Black people may be uniquely poised for a resurgence of activism and the creation of positive social change. The stomach punch of Katrina and now the Jim Crowish Jena Six experience may have put the Black psyche at a place open to possibilities of noble sacrifice for a vision of a better future.
I am not asking us to develop and execute a plan for such a monumental task. It will take years to reverse what Dr. Cornel West described as the Santafication of Dr. King. I ask that we take modest measured steps to plant seeds. We begin the education process by challenging the image of King presented in his public birthday celebrations. I propose in our own spheres of influence we put on events which emphasize his commitment to the poor and disenfranchised. We engage the traditional MLK Day planners to place our event(s) on the official schedule and take part in traditional events when possible without compromising our message. We attempt to engage in positive constructive conversation and move our brothers and sisters who are complicit in this hoax of King’s vision. Perhaps organize a feeder march to the traditional MLK Day March. Show up early for the march and hold an education rally. We also strategically challenge the traditional planners to examine the pop culture projections of King. We ask them if they believe the depictions presented represent the depth and breadth of his vision and do expectations asked of us in his name challenge us to question the status quo and act at a minimum as stewards of peace and justice.
We should also network with existing alternative events. We should present our events as a local and national press story and have a national website. We do this with the intent of continuing every year with the hope of planting seeds that will grow, leading to a better understanding of King’s vision and more people willing to act in accordance with it.
Where possible we should work with a rainbow of organizations and people to promote and execute our events and education.
I ask us to do this because it is time to stop the co-opting of our heritage. Too many Black people died so that we can have the relative freedoms we enjoy today and live in harmony with other people. Far too many people of African heritage and others from all walks of life suffer today due to poverty, bigotry and violence. It is a failure on the part of the living when we allow our ancestral giants to be miniaturized and their spirits made into harmless images for commercial use and instruments of pacification. It is a huge mission, but I ask us to begin with a small task. We do MLK Day a little different with a message closer to his own.
I close with Dr. King’s words from his most famous speech. Words you will seldom see or hear unless you read or listen to the speech in its entirety.
”There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. *We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: “For Whites Only.”* We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm
Much has changed and much has not. We are not satisfied with the state of the dream or the projection of your vision. We will not let you, Malcolm, Fannie, Sojourner, Fredrick, Asa, Ida and so many other great ancestors down. We will carry on for you, for ourselves and for our children.