Monday, January 16, 2006

Keeping his legacy alive

"The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and What It Means To Us Today"
by, Jim Baumer


Once again, we come upon the celebration of the birthday of a truly great human being, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It has been more than 30 years since an assassin's bullet stole from us one of our greatest champions of social and economic justice. Like many, I have been thinking about his legacy and what it means to those of us committed to building a just society today.

I think it is important that we not relegate his memory to the dusty corridors of history. While canonization may have been inevitable for one so prophetic in addressing a nation's besetting sins, we cannot allow the sanitization of his memory to lessen the intensity of his light, or to diminish the volume of his oratory.

While many today would laud King for his success in bringing about desegregation and championing civil rights, he spoke to issues much broader than race. And while race was, and still is a problem in America, to say that King was merely a champion for African-Americans in their quest for equal rights and access, is to rob him of the greater substance of what he stood for.

In an address delivered at the Riverside Church in New York, April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he would be martyred, King laid down what he saw as the triumvirate of sins besetting the American culture.

In his impassioned oratory, he lashed out at racism, rampant materialism, and militarism. In his unique and prophetic way, he made the connection between the obscene amounts being spent to bludgeon a culture across the globe in Vietnam, and our success in affecting the war on poverty at home. He saw that divisions between the classes, fed by greed and materialism, were just as ugly a scar on the American psyche, as divisions between the races.

It was an economic cause that brought King to Memphis on that fateful day of April 4, 1968. King had come to show solidarity for the 1,300 striking sanitation workers that led him to this southern city, where he was ultimately gunned down and martyred for his cause.

Many within the leadership of the civil rights movement were troubled by his belief that the most important issue affecting America was more than race. He was severely criticized by several prominent members of that very leadership, after giving his address at the Riverside Church. This criticism ate at King and kept him awake many a night in prayer and reflection. Yet, he knew his cause was just, and that it was greater than he was. It was the visionary character of King's message and his understanding of the issues that separated him from the pack.

Looking back at his life, what do we see today that needs our attention in order to properly honor his memory? Has his mantle been taken up? Unfortunately, I think that there is still much work to be done.

We have seen our nation plunged into a costly and unjust war in Iraq. We see economic fragmentation. The ever-widening chasm between the haves and have-nots has created the greatest disparity of wealth in our country in more than 100 years. Many of the poorest in our country go without because of our misplaced national priorities. Never before has conspicuous consumption been lifted up and exalted like during our present day. While more and more of our citizens lack food, shelter and clothing, there continues to be those that are searching for bigger and better toys. Sadly, we have not done a very good job at heeding the words of one of our nation's most prophetic voices.

If Dr. King were alive today, I believe he would be commenting on these very same issues—racism, militarism, and rampant materialism—social and economic justice. He wouldn’t be timid, either. He would offer us a voice of reason in a cacophony of madness, telling us that the only way to bring about peace isn't by sacrificing our young men, and killing all of our enemies. He would be a counter-weight to the cowboy diplomacy of our current administration.

Let us honor his memory by committing ourselves to the causes of racial equality, economic justice, and peaceful co-existence. We must build economically self-sustaining communities that are based on meaningful jobs that pay a living wage. To do anything less is to allow his light to flicker and fade from our national consciousness.


© Jim Baumer, 2006

3 comments:

ChefDunn said...

As I've mentioned to you before Jim, where is the talent? Where is the one person that can get up and move the american people? All these jerks we have "working" for us these days are more interested in throwing stones at eachother. We have some amazingly talented people in this country. There are actors that can make you believe. There are billionaires that started out with a couple of computers in a garage. Artists, musicians, teachers, clergymen, I can go on. But we have no one that can lead this country Democrat, Republician, or Independant.

Jim said...

I don't know if the solution is one person, but rather, a solidarity of persons--the forgotten idea of "We the People" comes to mind.

It's probably safe to say that we are going through a "leadership vacuum" at this time, as I don't see someone with the charisma and courage of a MLK poised to lead his people to the promised land.

We could start with Jefferson, who said, "An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic." When you have most Americans incapable of giving one branch of government when asked, you certainly have a problem, at least as far as men like Jefferson would be concerned.

There has never been a "golden age" in America, but there have been times when democracy was more vibrant than its current state.

I'd argue that television has had alot to do with this. Over its lifespan of 40 years, give or take, it has has an anesthetizing affect on public participation and has contributed to the coarsening of society.

I contend we are regressing back into an almost feudalistic state, which is fed by the ignorance of the people.

weasel said...

Cheff Dunn; "Where is the one person that can get up and move the american people?"

It is easy to look back 40 years later and see Dr. King for what he was: a visonary, radical hero. But the historian in me wonders how was he seen at the time? Was he accepted the way we accept him now? Did his campaign draw broad approval from the majority, or were people suspicious or dismissive of him? How "mass" was his mass movement? My point being that time has allowed us to fully appreciate his gifts and message that may have been obscured somewhat at the time. I'd love to see raw opinion poll numbers after the "I have a dream speech" (if they exist) for example, or read newspaper accounts and op eds about his campaigns.

An instructive example of this is JFK- still regarded almost as a secular saint despite his deep personal flaws, he was in Texas (when he was assassinated) to try to desperately shore up falling support in the prelude to the '64 election (and in 1960 he only beat Nixon by 0.35% of the popular vote; in 2000 Gore scored 1.07% more popular votes than Bush).

To be clear; I'm not saying King's death preserved him as some plaster saint to be held in uncritical acclaim, but rather time has allowed the beautiful truth of his message to come forth more fully. Who knows who historians 40 years from now will hit upon as the person who defined popular sentiment for change in our current era?

I just have a bad feeling it isn't going to be someone on the left....