Monday, January 15, 2007

King's legacy: What it means for us today

When I was a young man, “Letters From a Birmingham Jail” had a profound affect on my developing worldview. Martin Luther King, Jr., in answering calls by local leaders of the clergy, to “tone down” his rhetoric and his direct action, laid the underpinnings of why he continued to fight for justice—both economic and racial—at a cost to himself and his family. In so doing this, he paid the ultimate price, by offering his life.

I wrote an op-ed back in 2004, about this great leader, and champion of causes that are still important today. This ran at the time in the Maine Voices section of the Maine Sunday Telegram. I reworked it a bit last year and posted it here. I’m proud of what I wrote, because I think it accurately reflects what King’s legacy means for us today.

As a nation, our materialism, our militarism and our racism (while much less blatant than during King’s day, but still a reality) all indicate a need to reexamine our priorities and focus on what King was talking about when he issued his clarion call for justice. As Americans, we ignore that call at our peril.

"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

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