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A South Carolina Story

Reclaiming King Day … from the NAACP

by KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY

On January 13th I filed a request with the SC Budget and Control Board for use of the north side of the State House grounds on Monday January 15, 2007. The north side is where the Confederate flag flies. I was informed by officials at the agency that no application or written request had been made for the space at the time of my request.

Let me say that I considered filing for a permit for the past three years. All citizens have the right to petition government on the public square. The public space does not belong to any one group or person. And, no one group (in this state) owns the Martin Luther King Jr. franchise.

Many see MLK Day as a day to re-commit to King’s philosophy and work. Additionally, we believe that the purpose of the state’s soap box – the State House grounds–is to press forth demands on government consistent with King’s work. Our desire is to have a function more in keeping with King’s work and philosophy. Next year our rally will involve the groups and people who worked to make the official holiday a reality and those who wish to make concrete demands on the status quo and will work to make those demands a part of the political equation. We hope to put King, and the people, back into King Day.

Those aware of my history in Columbia know that I organized several of the marches and rallies at the State House to make King’s birthday a holiday prior to it becoming "official." I coordinated the rally in mid-80s when Stevie Wonder spoke. The last MLK rally I helped to organize was in 1992. US Senator and presidential candidate Tom Harkin was a guest speaker at the event. I also organized many of the marches and efforts to protest apartheid in South Africa and advocacy for the release of Nelson Mandela. I have organized more marches and rallies than I can remember both inside and outside of South Carolina, in Columbia and across this state. But one thing has been consistent in the efforts I have been involved with–there has been a demand and/or advocacy for something specific.

Coincidentally, a friend of mine offered an observation particular to recent MLK State House celebrations. Many of the people and groups, who now organize the "social" marches and rallies, "did not participate (although they could have) in advocacy efforts for the MLK holiday and other such efforts when they were unpopular." They may, at best, have an intellectual understand or, at worse, a pop culture understanding of King and his philosophy, but they have no operational or integrated understanding for fighting for social change.

At last year’s "King Day at the Dome," the NAACP’s keynote speaker was a public official openly supportive of the death penalty. This year, although an overwhelming majority of African Americans oppose the Iraq War, no mention was made of the war. And, NAACP officials ignored a request by organized labor to place a sign-up table on the grounds so that citizens could support their petition access drive in the "red state" South. Of course the irony is that King was killed while organizing garbage workers and for his opposition to war.

In response to my request for the grounds, a local TV talk show invited me to speak as to why I filed in advance of the NAACP. I accepted the invite and on air I stated what I previously mentioned:

1) no group holds the franchise on the King Day Celebration. And while alive, King was not supported by the organization;

2) no group ought to be able to control public space indefinitely or in perpetuity.

In response to a request from the same newsperson to appear on air with me, Lonnie Randolph, state president of the NAACP referred to me as a "white folk loving socialist."

Obviously, the socialist tag is red baiting. And, in that regard, Mr. Randolph has more in common with the traditions of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover than of Martin Luther King, Jr.

For the record I am perhaps a small l libertarian if I were to try to categorize myself. I have given some thought to both anarchism and Marxism in my life. I have considered a range of philosophical, structural and political possibilities for confronting oppression and white supremacy in America. Fundamentally, I believe in workers having the right to organize, that government is responsible to help those in need and not be the instrument of maintaining a privileged elite. I support reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans and victims of government-sanctioned discrimination and/or redistributive economics.

W.E.B. Dubois, one of the founders of the NAACP and the Niagara Movement and perhaps the greatest intellectual giant produced in this country was a socialist.

As for "white-folk loving," well, I try not to discriminate – personally or professionally – because of race. There are those who categorized King in the same way Mr. Randolph has attempted to damn me. Maybe Mr. Randolph should read the history of his organization as it was founded by both whites and black. Their highest organizational award the Spingarn Medal, is named after Joel Elias Spingarn, a white man and former board chair of the organization.

Perhaps the white folk who were on the NAACP King Day program in SC or who are on the board ought to be asking Mr. Randolph what he means by the categorization. Maybe the NAACP ought to return any contributions from white donors if he has such animus toward white people.

I do not now nor have I every thought that the NAACP was simply juxtaposition to the Klan. But when the leadership makes comments as such, that is what they are portraying.

My record of advocacy for respecting the human and civil rights of not just black people–but all people, is a matter of public record. That public record includes filing the original permit in 1990 with the Budget and Control Board to have the red, black and green "Liberation Flag" fly from the State Capitol Dome. That action forced the flag debate back into the legislature and began the active political process in which the flag was finally removed from the dome. That’s a part of the history people don’t read or hear about because such acts are about action not symbolism, rhetoric or fighting to see who gets credit.

At present, the SCACLU is not involved in this effort. However, it should go without saying that as state president of the organization I take the right of free speech and the right to appeal to government very seriously and will fight legally and publicly to maintain and defend that right should trickery be implored to attempt to deny my request.

The King Day celebration at the State House is a year away. We will spend the year organizing the event, not having a fight with the NAACP or a personal political fight with its president. But it is sad that the president has resorted to name calling because I have chosen to exercise my right as a citizen.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY is a regular contributor to Counterpunch.com. You can read his latest published essay, "The Legacy of Strom Thurmond," in American Monsters edited by Jack Neufield and available at Barnes and Noble. He can be reached at: kagamba@bellsouth.net