MLK and The Fierce Urgency of Now

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was 50 years ago through the blood, sweat, time, toil and tears that a 34-year-old Baptist preacher stepped to the microphone on the Mall in Washington and for the next 17 minutes he gave what is perhaps the greatest speech in America’s history.

Five years later, Martin Luther King would lie dead from an assassin’s bullet and much of his Dream of a better world for children of all races, creeds and colors died with him that day as his blood drained from his body on the balcony of a second-rate motel in Memphis.

From the moment life left King’s body in the process of celebrating the Dreamer forgot all about our responsibility to make his Dream come to fruition.   King challenged all of America to step its game up and be better and kinder to each other, but instead he has been appropriated into a dumb game of “What Would MLK Say About…?”

I refuse to play this silly game.

If Dr. King were alive today, he’d be 84 years old. I can’t begin to speculate how an 84-year-old man feels about anything. At that age you’re probably happy if you can make it to the bathroom with peeing on yourself.   He would be deserving of a little quiet in his sunset years instead of being badgered for a comment on the issue of the day.

An equally dumb game is the “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican” crap advanced by colored conservatives like Alveda King, the loudmouth niece of the slain civil rights leader who will tell anybody who asks, “Dr. King was a Republican!  I know it.”   How she knows this when King never said he was a Republican, his wife never said he was a Republican and his children never said he was a Republican is anybody’s guess.

Saying it doesn’t make it so. Providing proof makes it so.  PoltiFact deems the claims of MLK as a Republican to be FALSE:

…in a 2008 Associated Press story, King’s son and namesake Martin Luther King III said: “It is disingenuous to imply that my father was a Republican. He never endorsed any presidential candidate, and there is certainly no evidence that he ever even voted for a Republican. It is even more outrageous to suggest he would support the Republican Party of today, which has spent so much time and effort trying to suppress African American votes in Florida and many other states.”

Was MLK a Republican? No. But if Alveda King wants to believe he was I’m okay with that.  If she wants to believe MLK would make a better Batman than Ben Affleck  that’s fine too. It’s nuts, but so is the suggestion one of the greatest and most committed activists of his age, would be watching Fox News religiously.

If the Right-Wing Noise Machine had existed then as it exists now they would denounce King as a Black racist, a malcontent, an agitator, a race hustler who was stirring up resentment against Whites.  The Dr. King the right-wingers have attempted to appropriate for their own is one they have turned into a harmlessly naive toy figure whom when you pull his string he says, “I Have A Dream.”

What they don’t realize is King wasn’t simply a dreamer and his Dream was rooted in harsh reality.

King dreamed of a better America than the one he lived in, but he wasn’t asleep to how pernicious and persistent an adversary institutional and individual racism truly is.  Those who would manipulate King invoke his most famous speech to chastise Blacks but deceptively overlook  King put Whites on the spot when he said,  “The Negro needs the white man to free him from his fears. The white man needs the Negro to free him from his guilt.”

“I have a dream” isn’t my favorite part of the speech, but the less optimistic and slightly ominous caution of growing Black restlessness and discontent as King challenged America to confront its shabby treatment of its Black citizens.


Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

That part of MLK’s speech is a callback to Frederick Douglass’ admonishing White Americans that there could be no progress without a struggle, but even more pointedly, Douglass warned, “The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery.”

That is as true now for America now as it was 50 years ago on a beautiful day in Washington.  The misery of Black people should not make White people happy.  People in misery are volatile people and people with grievances are subject to be manipulated and misled by opportunistic extremists who stoke the fires of racial resentment for their own cynical purposes.

That’s not the kind of extremism King was advocating.  His was a creative extremism where love drove out hate, the artificial divisions of racism, sexism, and classism would fall away before the soldiers of peace, progress and prosperity.     They call Martin a “dreamer” but he was wide awake.   It was the rest of us who had drifted into a slumbering stupor that required him to stir, awake and arise to make a better world.

We are closer today than we were 50 years ago, but close isn’t the same as being finished.

 

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4 thoughts on “MLK and The Fierce Urgency of Now

  1. In a lot of cases when it comes to dream of Matin Luther King Jr it’s obvious that his dream has turned into a full blown nightmare for a vast % of poor black’s who are either locked up in these updated slave private prison plantations or all the black’s that have been beat and klled by racist police all over the country.
    These people who run these courts do not even have the decenty to change the crack cocaine law in spite of all the damage is has done to black communities,black families,black men,black women and black youth.
    So in spite of all the hype the only solution now in the year 2013 is for the black masses and so-called black leadership to create a new liberation paradigm beyond the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.

  2. Hi, you are just one of a handful of people in the last few days To Acknowledge that
    MLK was a Student of Mr. Fredrick Douglas .Brother Walter Fields made this point on
    MSNBC this past week.

  3. Hey Jeff! Very powerful. Love how you end: “They call Martin a “dreamer” but he was wide awake. It was the rest of us who had drifted into a slumbering stupor that required him to stir, awake and arise to make a better world.”
    about a minute ago

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