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.
King saw the power of people in motion, and assumed the awesome
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
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 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.
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.
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."
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….”
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?
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.
could be more tragic than for men to live in these revolutionary
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.
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.
assuming that personal wealth equals group leadership, too
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.
it is largely the distracters who will be on ostentatious
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:
typical Black family had 60% as much income as a white family
in 1968, but only 58% as much in 2002.
in nine African Americans cannot find a job. Black unemployment
is more than twice the white rate – a wider gap than in 1972.
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.
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.
white homeownership has jumped from 65% to 75% since 1970,
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
the current pace, Blacks and whites will reach high school
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.
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
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.
many ways we have a long road to travel just to get back