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Reclaiming Martin Luther King

Every year this time people pull out Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” or “mountaintop” speeches with corresponding video footage. Generally speaking, King is presented at two times in his life, at the beginning and end of his career and life. Rarely is there a discussion or education on his beliefs.

King’s image is misused by just about everybody. So much so there needs to be a rescue operation to save his legacy and the civil rights agenda. Politicians throw King or “civil rights” in a sentence and they’re done. In the aftermath of the Trent Lott confession, white politicians ­ Republican and Democratic–have fallen all over themselves to say they are for “civil rights.” Presidential candidate and North Carolina Senator John Edwards said he was for “civil rights” which could mean either ‘I like black people’ or ‘I want black votes.’

Whites are not alone in the misuse. Many blacks think King’s image or a King-like speech substitutes for substance. Here in South Carolina in the past campaign year, the Democrats mailed out flyers with a picture of King on one side and it’s two statewide black candidates on the other. Under the King picture were the words “Someone we can trust.” Steve Benjamin, the candidate for state Attorney General (one of the men pictured on the King mailer) ran as a pro-gun, pro-death penalty, tough on crime conservative. He said he would further limit paroles in a state where the adult prison population is 65% black and the youth population is 85% black. He traveled to Charleston on Labor Day to speak to workers but refused to support the right of garbage workers to bargain collectively. How’s that for irony given that King died while organizing garbage workers?

As for the hip-hop generation, they are often chided for being irreverent of King and unfeeling towards the civil rights struggle as well as what civil rights means. Not being one for idolatry, I am not upset with Cedric the Entertainer’s jibs in the movie Barbershop nor did I agree with the calls to have the Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks and King comments cut from the movie. Still, as I watched the movie and heard the King quip I thought, Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI spent thousands of dollars and man hours to destroy this man ­ even suggesting he kill himself over his infidelity. So, is the hip-hop generation movie promoting the government’s and haters’ line or just “flippin the script?”

Some argue that King supporters accept him flaws and all, which was the point of the controversial Barbershop scene. King was not perfect but he lead a great movement. I would like to believe that blacks are more forgiving than most. Still, we can’t expect a movie ­ whose primary purpose is to entertain–to educate.

Politicians and movies aside, what King was trying to accomplish still needs doing. In “Where do we go from here” King said “the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society ” or, in preacher terms, “America must be born again!” His 1967 speech is clear as to where we are today and why. He reminds us “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

Clearly, the goal of the human and civil rights movement remains far undone. The sad reality is that at this point there is no movement and no organization at the grassroots level to make a movement happen. That’s not to say a movement isn’t on the horizon but it’s going to take building. And in both movements and wars–old people send young people do most of the marching, fighting and dying. And the hip-hoppers of color will die in George Bush’s war in greater numbers than most. So, building a peace movement is in their interest. It’s a matter of life or death, freedom or imprisonment, ignorance or transformation and enlightment.

As for where King might be on war with Iraq — in 1968, King entertained running as an independent candidate for president with Dr. Benjamin Spock as Vice-president to oppose the Vietnam War. King supported peace. He was against killing. So maybe amidst the misuse and cynicism there is room for optimism as opposition to war is high in the black community. In the 2002 National Opinion Poll of African Americans conducted by David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, less that 19 percent of blacks supported going to war with Iraq. The poll highlights the economy and employment as the main concerns of blacks.

As was King’s mission we must organize the just and peaceful society. Those seeking peace should oppose all other forms of state-sponsored killing to include the death penalty.

Environmentalism is a peace option. It means being against the production of nuclear bomb material at the Savannah River Plant here in South Carolina.

A peace and justice agenda involves transforming a society where one in three black men are under some type of criminal justice supervision. Being for peace means being against the “war on drugs.” That is unless we want that ratio to be 4 out of 4?

When you are for peace you reject the exploitation of workers and the corporate-manufactured (and most often racist) animosities between them. It means the rejection of unjust social, political and economic conditions that lead to war, death, hurt or exploitation.

So, where do we go from here? First, the task to restructure must be fought at every level but most importantly at the grassroots level using a variety of tactics and methods. We can’t all just go off to a big march in Washington or a march once a year on King’s birthday and that’s it. From here on out we have to muster the resources to run and support candidates with a human rights agenda. We have to do local teach-ins, start freedom schools and create structures to challenge government, status quo politics and inhumane policies. It means thinking differently about things and helping others to do the same. It means changing values. Fundamentally, restructuring means dismantling white privilege and supremacy.

Now, more than ever, we must educate the public not just about King, but what he believed in and what we all claim to believe in when we raise him name up. We must organize and make change happen. We live in dangerous times. If we don’t mobilize, our children’s lives, our lives and future is in peril. We must act.

Kevin Gray is a CounterPunch contributer and civil rights organizer who resides in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached at: kagamba@bellsouth.net

 

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