"I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live." --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Listen up. January 15th is Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. This is the birthday of a man who was more than a preacher. He was an activist/intellectual leader who fought for justice. The daddy wrote this article about him. Are there any drum majors here?
Well, another Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King holiday is coming. Once again, the media will provide snippets of his speech in 1963 saying, "I have a dream," as if this was the only speech he ever made in his life, or as if he no longer gave speeches after 1963.
Once again, people will hold marches all across the country. Some will look like parades or carnivals. Once again, speeches of praise will be made by presidents, governors, mayors and local politicians, all smiling like used-car dealers. By the way, some of these folks called King a "radical," a "leftist," "communist," or just a "black leader" not that long ago. And some of them, like Sen. McCain, voted against a King holiday several times.
Look for your local newspaper to tell you where to go to see them and give a few seconds to them on the news. And look for CNN to interview a few African Americans who were organizers and prime time players of the movement back in the day: people like Andrew Young who now does commercials for Wal-Mart and Jessie Jackson, who said he would like to operate on a certain part of President-elect Obama's sexual parts (at the Fox News studio of all places!).
They'll talk about how empowering and righteous it was to fight the good fight for that "beloved community" of which Dr. King hoped to create. But what the old guard civil rights leaders won't be allowed much time to talk about, what CNN and the mainstream media will not discuss meaningfully, is Dr. King's focus in the last two years of life: U.S. violence abroad and poverty at home. In his final days, Dr. King spoke out and marched against the US propensity to go war; and he nailed it when he made the connection between war abroad and poverty at home.
Dr. King the intellectual
When we read Dr. King's major speeches with an eye toward his intellectual development, we see the intellectual unfolding of an outside-the-box- critical thinker moving from civil rights to human rights; from the right to drink at a water fountain to the right to a living wage; from the violence of police beating protesters and marchers practicing civil disobedience to the rights of third world countries fighting for independence from colonizers. Mainstream media won't discuss this intellectual evolution and for good reasons: It's too dangerous. Reporters could lose their jobs. News directors too. But this evolution led Dr. King to three conclusions:
1. The US is a violent nation-state which engages in war for profit and control of third world resources.
2. Poverty is rampant in the US. Let's be clear: he meant poverty was rampant among all races or ethic groups in the United States, and not just African Americans. That's why his poor people's campaign, which his organization (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) was spearheading to go to Washington to highlight poverty in the US, included Whites from Appalachia, Native Americans on reservations, Hispanics and others.
3. Only a mass movement by grassroots organizations will move the country to tackle poverty in earnest.He concluded that US politicians had neither moral fortitude or the political will to end a disgraceful plight of millions of impoverished and homeless in the richest country in the world. Will the mainstream media tell us that? Is that what we want to hear?
Dr. King's relevance today
This self-described "drum major for justice," who only wanted "to do God's will," criticized the US government for its propensity to start wars; and that criticism is just as relevant today as it was in the sixties. Let us not forget: Dr. King was one of the first prominent US citizens to speak against our involvement in the war in Vietnam. He said it was immoral of us to be there; he said it was immoral to deny poor people jobs at home but send them thousands of miles away to kill and be killed; and he made the connection between war and poverty, offering that the war in Vietnam siphoned off much-needed funds to tackle problems like poverty and education at home. Sounds like the same situation today, doesn't it? Will the mainstream media help us to make the connection between the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq? Will CNN, for instance, bring on economists and political scientists to discuss the relationship between war and poverty? Will those guests mention that President Johnson's efforts to fight poverty (after much urging from Dr. King and other civil rights leaders and protests in urban streets) was cut short by the Vietnam war? Will they say our efforts to deal with poverty, healthcare, education, drugs and drug-related violence, immigration and a host of other issues is stymied because the more than a billion a day is going to fight a bloody, costly war in Iraq?
Will they help us to recognize, for instance, that true greatness of Dr. King was that he saw the relationship between wars abroad and the violence of poverty at home and tried to do something radical to bring the problem to our attention, especially in the last two years of his life? Of course not. Neither CNN nor any of the other mainstream outlets nor many US citizens, for that matter, wish to hear the horrific reality of US violence abroad or the shameful reality of the violence of poverty in the richest country in the world, especially on a holiday.
Dr. King's Challenge
Here's another reason we won't hear much about Dr. King's effort to deal with violence and poverty: he set a standard that not many of us are willing to even try to match. He read voraciously and thought critically about issues international, national and local. He could quote from a Shakespearan play as easily as he could the bible. He wrote articles. He wrote books. And he acted. He was jailed more than 30 times, hounded by the IRS, the CIA (who tried to get him to commit suicide), stabbed and received death threats almost everyday. Yet, he continued to be what he called "a drum major for justice" and " to do God's will."
Of course this high bar gives us no excuse for becoming drum majors in our own right, that is, doing what we can, wherever we are, whatever our station, to fight for justice. And this bar doesn't mean that we have to reach it. It only gives us a goal and a reason to try. Still, for some of us, almost any struggle to help others is too much. The home, though highly mortgaged, is too comfortable, the boat at the cabin by the lake too relaxing, the over-priced, gas-guzzling SUV (the only "freedom ride" some of us well ever know) too exhilarating. Yet, like a tree by the water, Dr. King's bar remains.
Will the mainstream media repeat the words of Dr. King and say, "Look America: Not only are you allowing your government to send poor people abroad to kill in your name, you're also leaving their families and many other families to languish in poverty in the richest country in the world?" That's a rhetorical question, isn't it?
Meantime, have fun this holiday. Have family and friends over. Barbecue. Play cards. Have a few cold ones. But don't be surprised if the spirit of Dr. King walks through a cloud of barbecue smoke, lingers on your lawn and asks... "Are there any drum majors here?"
Also, read the Daddy's post: "Are we getting negro comfortable up in here?"