Sunday, 28 August 2011

His True Legacy Comes From Right Action


The planned (and now, postponed) dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr monument in DC presents another opportunity to reflect on the continued deterioration of the American social fabric which, as I suggested in an earlier post, may soon become FUBAR, although it is perhaps more polite to say something like "ripped asunder".

In a recent commentary by Cornel West of Princeton, the prophetic words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel resonated with me: "The whole future of America depends on the impact and influence of Dr. King."  These words were spoken while Dr. King was alive.  In the 43 years since his assassination, the future of America has grown considerably darker, and its trajectory may very well be linked to a waning of Dr. King's impact and influence.  Professor West writes:
"King weeps from his grave.  He never confused substance with symbolism.  He never conflated a flesh and blood sacrifice with a stone and mortar edifice.  We rightly celebrate his substance and sacrifice because he loved us all so deeply.  Let us not remain satisfied with symbolism because we too often fear the challenge he embraced."
And, as I've written in previous posts, President Obama embraced the symbolism of Dr. King mainly because it was expedient and highly effective.  Others remain satisfied with mere symbolism because it is difficult to do otherwise, as it is also profitable and comfortable.  As I've also written recently, and affirmed by West in his piece, the age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling Dr. King's legacy,
"Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housiing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable."
Professor West goes on to say,
"The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts' stimulating growth.  This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King's catastrophes (militarism, racism and poverty); its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans."
The catastrophes enumerated by West are consistent with the "triple evils" that King himself identified -- poverty, injustice and war.  West suggests that King's response to this crisis would be found in one word -- revolution.  As I have said in my own earlier posts, Dr. King would take to the streets in opposition to the policies of Bush, and now, those of Obama.  West affirms this and says,
"A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens."
This is unlikely, of course, because it is so damned difficult, and because the right-wing has so thoroughly occupied the high ground on the battle field.  Unlikely, too, because the singular transformational figure of our time, Barack Obama, has shown himself to be a manchurian candidate for the monied class -- he has corrupted the language and oratory and symbolism of Dr. King in the service of his own political agenda.  Unlikely, too, because it appears the future of America is plummeting with the falling trajectory of Dr. King's impact and influence.  

The best legacy to Martin Luther King Jr is to be found in right action, and not in stone monuments.

This sentiment is affirmed in the comments of Michael Eric Dyson, in which he described how Dr. King employed what Dyson calls his "automortality" -- the narration of his own death.  Dyson says that King ingeniously used the inevitability of his own death to motivate and mobilize his community, to use that certain death to win converts into his army of moral opposition to America's failure to be truly democratic.  Dyson quotes from a King sermon, in which he says that he does not want to be remembered for his Nobel Peace Prize or the other numerous awards he received, but rather that he was on the right side of peace, on the right side of the war.  Dyson says that King anticipated his death in order that others would,
"look at its inevitability, transform its perception and alter and shape how people should view his life once he was there longer here."
So, even as King acknowledged that he "might not get to the promised land", he did nevertheless have a clear idea about how he should be remembered, based on the principles for which he stood.

And today, with the monument to him now unveiled, many people are finding it an appropriate time to consider him again.  And many people are writing about it.  Congressman John Lewis did so in the Washington Post on Saturday.  He said that if Dr. King were alive today he would be amazed that such a monument was erected for him, as he would be gratified that an african-American was elected as president.  Lewis also agreed that Dr. King would say that much more needs to be done, saying,
"His dream was about building a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and worth of every human being.  That effort is the true legacy of King's dream.  Were he alive today, it is telling that his message would still be essentially the same.  It is troubling that unemployment is so high -- indeed, far higher than it was in 1963 -- and that we are so caught up in details of deficits and debt ceilings that we question whether government has any moral duty to serve the poor, help feed the hungry and assist the sick.  Today, Dr. King would still be asking questions that reveal the moral meaning of our policies.  And he would still challenge our leaders to answer those questions -- and to act on their beliefs."
I take Congressman Lewis' comments as especially relevant, as he came up through the struggles of the civil rights movement with Dr. King.  His comments about what Martin Luther King might say today are therefore authoritative.  He went on to say that Dr. King would likely tell President Obama that a leader should inspire people to greatness, but that to do he must be daring, courageous and unafraid to demonstrate what he is made of.  To this point in his first term, President Obama has failed to live up to any of the congressman's prescriptions.  The congressman also said,
"Dr. King would tell this young leader that it is his moral obligation to use his power and influence to help those who have been left out and left behind.  He would encourage him to get out of Washington, to break away from his handlers and advisors and go visit the people where they live.  He would urge Obama to feel the hurt and pain of those without work, of mothers and their children who go to bed hungry at night, of families living in shelters after losing their homes, and of the elderly who chose between buying medicine and paying the rent.  Dr. King would say that a Nobel Peace Prize winner can and must find a way to demonstrate that he is a man of peace, a man of love and non-violence.  He would say it is time to bring an end to war and get our young men and women out of harm's way.  Dr. King would assert without hesitation that war is obsolete, that it destroys the very soul of a nation, that it wastes human lives and natural resources." 
In stark contrast to the views of Congressman Lewis, Obama has done none of this, and he will not do so unless and until it serves to burnish his presidential legacy, a presidency won as the very realization of Dr. King's "dream".  And, even then, it will be too little, too late.  While I do recognize the congressman's unique perspective in commenting on what Dr. King might say to President Obama, I feel that his touch is perhaps too light.  In this I will side with Cornel West, and my own previously stated sentiments, that Dr. King would be appalled at the damage done to the social fabric of America, and the disservice that President Obama has done to "the dream".

The man who so assiduously wrapped himself in the mantle of Dr. King has since his election ignored the poor, the mothers and children, the families living in shelters, the elderly choosing between medication and rent.  He is a Nobel Laureate that champions war as an extension of foreign policy -- no man of peace is he.  To this point in his presidency, Obama has exacerbated King's triple evils, beyond even (as impossible as this sounds) the damage done by George W. Bush.

To be sure, there is blame enough for President Obama.  He is culpable for campaigning so shamelessly as the very embodiment of MLK, and for then walking back from Dr. King's principles once in office.  Obama abandoned his core constituency in the early days of his presidency but now, as the election looms, seeks to lure them back with bold words and new promises of action.  He does this knowing that 90% of the black vote will remain true to him, knowing that progressives will view with horror the Republican alternative, and knowing that the expanded application of social media and the increased flow of dark money give him a reasonable shot at independents, and a reasonable shot at a second term.  Beyond the intricacies of the campaign, however, Obama has shown that he is not the heir to Martin Luther King Jr -- the rhetoric of Candidate Obama is far removed from the actions of President Obama.

So, yes, Obama merits well-earned condemnation because of his profile, and because of the failed expectations he himself invited.  But others are well and truly deserving.  Dr. King might ask the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus how it is they have consistently failed to speak against the triple evils, and only now have begun to ratchet-up dissent on the issue of employment.  So, too, would he ask his own family to explain their vested interest in edifices and naming rights and corporate donors that seem to overshadow the actual work of delivering social change.  And he might ask each and every person who would file past this new monument what -- in the words of Congressman Lewis -- they have done to advance the dignity and worth of every human being, or what they have done to challenge their leaders on the moral meaning of their policies.

Dr. King would do this because, sadly, Congressman Lewis is correct, that after 43 years "his message would still be essentially the same".  He would be dismayed that so much attention could be lavished on a monument (its place of origin, the project's financing, the choice of inscriptions) while the struggle it is meant symbolize seems to have achieved so little.  He would quickly recognize that, given the power of the right-wing's rhetoric and the pervasive nature of today's corporate culture, the only remedy is, still, right action -- right action of the kind taken by Cornel West and Travis Smiley in their national tour against poverty.  This is, of course, but one example of what can to be done and is now being done, through the dedicated efforts of many, each and every day.  

But much more must be done to counter the forces that perpetuate poverty, injustice and war.  While it is impossible to state with any certainty what Martin Luther King would say and do if he were alive today, the informed comments of Congressman Lewis and Professors Dyson and West offer some plausible suggestions.  What is certain, though, is that Dr. King would not remain silent, and he would not abandon the principles for which he stood and for which he wished to be remembered.

Dr. King would view his true legacy as reflected in the right actions of all who would wish to honor him.


Postscript.  For those of us who don't live in the US, the discussion about the MLK memorial might seem a bit remote.  However, if you think of Dr. King in the context of such figures as Ghandi and Mandela it might take on more relevance.  There are far too few iconic figures as these in the world, and too many men who are described as "men of peace" are decidedly not.  We need to celebrate the agents of social change like King (and Jack Layton, who passed last week), as we emulate their principles and actions, because the forces that would perpetuate poverty, injustice and war are the same ones that would silence or co-opt their message.

Read David Garrow's book about Dr. King; go to The King Center and read or listen to his speeches; and press your own politicians to justify policies that are increasingly at odds with moral outcomes.  Right action and social change are not just American issues.

Update.  I found today (August 29) a commentary by Jesse Jackson that I had missed when writing the original post.  Had I seen it, I would have referred to it, and I'll recommend it as one of the writings you might wish to seek out.

His theme is, I'm happy to say, not inconsistent with my own -- that Dr. King's true legacy comes from "right action".  Jackson doesn't put it quite that way, but not so far off, either.
"Dr. King taught nonviolence, but nonviolence was not surrender.  We used our bodies as living sacrifices.  He took the sting out of jail cells and death.  No sacrifice is too great to achieve a higher moral purpose.
Perfect love casts our fear.  Dr. King was fearless.  He insisted that we see the humanity in our oppressors -- but that we not accept the oppression.  We must protest, in disciplined, nonviolent but forceful demonstrations, and boycott, litigate, lobby and legislate, tying up the legislatures, filling up the jails.  We had to demand respect for our humanity, even as we appealed to the humanity of those who would beat and jail us."
I'm thinking of the protests now taking place in front of the White House by opponents of the Oil Sands Pipeline as an example of the kind of right action that would gain Dr. King's approval, and perhaps his participation.

Still, I can't help but imagine that if, as Congressman John Lewis says, his message would still be the same today (a sadly demoralizing thought, that), Dr. King would take to the streets to rail against those same triple evils that plague us still -- poverty, injustice and war. He'd likely also find new evils to inveigh against, such as the pervasive corporate culture that dominates everyday life in our world.

He might also pointedly ask why we would wait for him to take action.

By David.

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Your musical accompaniment for the day: Court and Spark, featuring Nora Jones; Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters.  Enjoy.

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