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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the star among many heroes in the demise of Jim Crow, the century-long twilight between slavery and the achievement of full Black U.S. citizenship rights. This leap out of purgatory – an incredible, decade and a half rush of political adrenaline – began with the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools. It promised to usher in the New Black Man and Woman: confident, self-aware, ready to take their places among the proud peoples of the world. Ready, like Dr. King, to use their newly equal legal status to change history.

Every January 15 we should be humbled to confront the reality that we, African Americans, have not fulfilled the promise. “Dream” words will rain down like confetti during the week of Dr. King’s birthday – much of it rote, empty incantations divorced from any semblance of vision or even the most tentative intentions towards action. A minority of celebrants will realize, with a sudden shudder, that it is not Dr. King who is stuck in time by death, but African Americans of the present, through their own inaction.

Dr. King saw the power of people in motion, and assumed the awesome responsibility and risk of attempting to guide the flow to its ultimate destination: universal human freedom. His vision was the product of the collective Black experience, and his own – starting with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, when Blacks through their own efforts cracked the White Wall. King’s disciplined intellect allowed him to assess these experiences, and measure them against the backdrop of the larger, human mural.

“Dreams” were things that were actually possible, based on the particulars of one’s circumstances, conditions in the larger environment, and the exertion of human will. King thanked his God for these personal insights, and allowed the rest of us into his musings with the Deity – a way of sharing the vision, so as to strengthen our will.

The man who led the “movement” was able to do so because he saw clearly his – and our – place in human history. In Memphis on the night before his death, during the same sermon in which he so famously told of having “looked over” the mountain to see the “promised land,” Dr. King let the congregation know why he set out on his journey in the first place.

[I]f I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" – I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.

But I wouldn't stop there. I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and esthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even go by the way that the man for whom I'm named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg.

But I wouldn't stop there. I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even come up the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

But I wouldn't stop there. Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy." Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding – something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya: Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same – "We want to be free."

Dr. King lifted his audiences out of Jim Crow’s sunken domain, set them in the company of struggling humankind the world over, and called upon African Americans to respond as global citizens to the way that “God” was “working in this period….”

By 1968 the legal barriers that had confined Blacks for 100 years were reduced to rubble. Now was the time for African Americans to assume the responsibilities of full-grown men and women, to definitively throw off the mental shackles of Jim Crow by confronting the larger forces that had created it. “When I say questioning the whole society,” King said in his speech, “Where Do We Go from Here,” August 16, 1967, “it means ultimately coming to see that 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.”

The “promised land” was not a green pasture just over the hill, but a new field of struggle in which African Americans would add their voices and unique experiences to the arsenals of human resistance to evil. This was the prize and the path. Not only was it morally right to oppose the “triple evils,” it was also the intelligent, civilized course for all of humanity. “The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just,” said King in his historic anti-Vietnam War speech at New York’s Riverside Church, exactly one year before his assassination. “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

King’s April 4, 1967 Riverside Church speech is widely considered to mark his definitive break with President Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. The above passage also appears, word-for-word, in “The World House” chapter of King’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, “Let my people go.” This was an opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same story.  Something within has reminded the Negro of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the spirit of the times, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers in Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.

Nothing could be more tragic than for men to live in these revolutionary times and fail to achieve the new attitudes and the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. In Washington Irving’s familiar story of Rip Van Winkle, the one thing that we usually remember is that Rip slept twenty years. There is another important point, however, that is almost always overlooked. It was the sign on the inn in the little town on the Hudson from which Rip departed and scaled the mountain for his long sleep. When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, twenty years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington. As he looked at the picture of the first President of the United States, Rip was confused, flustered and lost. He knew not who Washington was. The most striking thing about this story is not that Rip slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution that would alter the course of human history.

One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood.

Like Rip Van Winkle, large segments of Black America fell asleep almost as soon as Dr. King’s voiced was silenced. Others saw the “revolution” only in terms of expanded opportunities for personal upward mobility. Unfortunately for Black America, many of these same people became Black “leaders.”  They cannot find themselves or their fellow African Americans on the sweeping map of history, and so have no idea what direction to take. They are only vaguely aware that the “triple evils” King spoke of 37 years ago – racism, economic exploitation, and war – are now infinitely more dangerous to world survival than while King lived. Consequently, these “leaders” possess only the narrowest understanding of the threat that the Bush Pirates' global offensive poses to African Americans, specifically.

Erroneously assuming that personal wealth equals group leadership, too many beneficiaries of the great leap out of Jim Crow use their influence to lull the rest of the Race to sleep.  Like an adolescent class, they believe they have achieved their present status in life independent of historical Black struggle – or worse, that Dr. King, Malcolm and countless others were sacrificed for the purpose of their own eventual affluence. On King’s birthday, they celebrate themselves, oblivious to the blasphemy they are committing.  These “distracting classes” – in that they purposely present distracting stories of anomalous Black successes to counter the facts of massive social disintegration – have always been with us. However, with each ratcheting up of the global and domestic crisis, we can afford them less.

Nevertheless, it is largely the distracters who will be on ostentatious display during MLK week. Totally lacking in leadership qualities, they refuse even to bear witness to the realities of African American life. According to a new report by United for a Fair Economy, “racial inequities in unemployment, family income, imprisonment, average wealth and infant mortality are actually worse than when Dr. King was killed.” Titled “State of the Dream 2004: Enduring Disparities in Black and White,” the report concedes that “progress has been made in narrowing the divide in per capita income, poverty, homeownership, education, life expectancy and median wealth, but so slowly that the gaps would take decades or even centuries to close at the current rate.” Some stark statistics:

  • The typical Black family had 60% as much income as a white family in 1968, but only 58% as much in 2002.
  • One in nine African Americans cannot find a job. Black unemployment is more than twice the white rate – a wider gap than in 1972.
  • Black infants are almost two-and-a-half-times as likely as white infants to die before age one – a greater gap than in 1970.
  • White households had an average net worth of $468,200 in 2001, more than six times the $75,700 of Black households. In 1989 (the oldest comparable data available), average white wealth was five-and-a-half times Black wealth.
  • At the slow rate that the Black-white poverty gap has been narrowing since 1968, it would take 150 years, until 2152, to close.
  • For every dollar of white per-capita income, African Americans had 55 cents in 1968 – and only 57 cents in 2001. At this pace, it would take Blacks 581 years to get the remaining 43 cents.
  • While white homeownership has jumped from 65% to 75% since 1970, Black homeownership has only risen from 42% to 48%. At this rate, it would take 1,664 years to close the homeownership gap – about 55 generations.
  • If current rates of incarceration continue, one out of three African American males born today will be imprisoned at some point during their lifetimes.
  • At the current pace, Blacks and whites will reach high school graduation parity in 2013, six decades after the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. And college graduation parity wouldn’t be reached until 2075, more than 200 years after the end of slavery.

Statistics are important elements in assessing the progress, or backsliding, of a people. But the mere recitation of numbers absent an understanding of that people’s connectedness to the larger world, leads nowhere. One must locate the nexuses and vectors of affliction, the causes of human misery. Leadership means, first, bearing witness to the Truth – as indispensable an act in the secular world as it was to King’s liberation theology. It does not take a theologian to understand that when people fail to bear witness to crimes or identify the perpetrators, those crimes will multiply.

The “triple evils” of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are threatening to burn down Dr. King’s “World House.” The chief perpetrator plans to lay a wreath on the martyr’s grave in Atlanta, Thursday morning – a picture that will be packaged as evidence of “progress.” A chorus of lost souls will say Amen, flattered by the abomination.

In many ways we have a long road to travel just to get back to 1968.



January 15, 2004
Issue 73

is published every Thursday.

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