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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King’s Dream and Obama’s Reality.

obama_inauguration

Four years ago, when Inauguration Day fell and Barack Hussein Obama raised his right hand to take the Oath of Office it was a moment frozen in history.  My heart swelled with pride for my country and all that it had accomplished by electing the first African-American as President of the United States.   Four years ago it was all about Hope and Change.

Four years later, here we are at another Inauguration Day and once again it’s Obama raising his right hand, but while it is history, it’s history writ a little smaller than 2008.  Hope and Change has been superseded by Reality and Possibility.   Both Obama and the rest of the country have learned how hard it is to change the status quo of politics when it doesn’t want to be changed and while most of us are not yet cynical, we’re a bit less hopeful.

There is a powerful symmetry between the coincidence of Obama’s inauguration falling on the same day the nation observes the birthday of one of its greatest citizens, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   It is an error of rushing to premature judgment to say the election of Obama is the culmination of King’s Dream.  King was King and Obama is not King.  He is Obama and he is a politician, one of the best politicians of our age on par with his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.  Whether he rises to the level of King remains to be seen.

The president makes it plain in his second inaugural address.

The president makes it plain in his second inaugural address.

King moved America forward, but it took his untimely death and decades of unworthy, would be successors trying and failing to pick up where King left off for his vision and wisdom to be fully appreciated.

Obama has another four years to build upon what he began four years ago.  Now he knows how wide the opposition is from the Republicans in Washington and deeply entrenched the desire of the Right wing everywhere else is for him to fail.

The difference for the 2013 version of Barack Obama is he understands he is the president and he is to whom the American people turn to for leadership and a unifying plan for the future.   The president seems ready to step up in his second term to offer that leadership:

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free.  We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers.

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.  Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.  For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.  No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.  Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.

This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience.  A decade of war is now ending.   An economic recovery has begun.  America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands:  youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.  My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.  

The Dream and The Hope.

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.  We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

I think King would have smiled broadly at the president’s speech.

What both King and Obama believe is government can be a tool for good, for social uplift, to provide for the general welfare, economic fairness and equality, and facilitate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all America, not just 53 percent of it.

This isn’t King’s Dream because King’s Dream was never a one size fits all aspiration.  My dreams are not your dreams and Obama’s dreams are not King’s.   President Obama is the continuation, not the culmination of Martin Luther King’s dream.

The second time around for Obama and Roberts.

The second time around for Obama and Roberts.