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Tag Archives: Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

At the time of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was widening his scope. He had been the unquestionable leader among many important change-bringers of the Civil Rights Movement, but by 1968 he felt that enough had been accomplished for him to add poverty and war to his agenda.

Some of his fellow African American activists disagreed, just as some had disagreed about King’s devotion to non-violence. For me, both of these moves on King’s part mark his singularity.

In some ways, King’s non-violence was almost too white-friendly. Many believe that his reputation has been co-opted and rendered touchy-feely, even impotent, by the powerful who treat him as though he were not a radical. What many celebrate on MLK Day is this user-friendly Christian MLK.

But King’s inclusion of poverty and war on his agenda mark him as a social reformer of an extraordinary order. In 1968, he was attempting to organize the “Poor People’s Campaign” and had come to believe in a guaranteed income as a way to combat poverty. He stated very clearly that he sought to address issues that created poverty among both black and white. He also believed, as the video above indicates, that the Vietnam War was an enormous moral wrong, and that the powerful of whatever race that promulgated war were wrong. He knew that war was also about money. And he showed that he was a kind of Christian that is all too rare these days: one who was dedicated to justice and fairness and the good of all humans, no matter their station or situation.

Today I’m not here to debate whether there is ever a justifiable war or whether a guaranteed income would have the desired effect, but to note that Martin Luther King, Jr., saw beyond immediate, personal causes. This is so rare as to be a miracle. Just this week, Harper’s magazine, in its often devastating Index (description), noted that 57 (out of 535) members of the U.S. Congress are among the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans (info from the Center for Responsive Politics). I will bet that if you asked after the wealthiest 5 percent, members of Congress would be overwhelmingly members of the club. Most of them, it seems, find it impossible to look beyond their own self-interests in forming policy. And that is the simple and only reason I can see that we are still indulging in tax breaks for those wealthiest of Americans. It has been demonstrated over and over that that stuff does not trickle down. We are not really living in a representative government, but an oligarchy.

I don’t know what Martin Luther King, Jr., would have done in the face of today’s current political scene. He would have turned 83 years old yesterday, and it would be possible that he’d still be alive had he not been assassinated. My bet, however, is that in spite of his all-too-human fondness for silk suits and pretty women, he would have preached for us to set narrow personal interests aside for the sake of the humanity that he loved so much. He was the genuine item, and I pay him all due respect on this day, both as a non-violent activist and a radical reformer.

All Along the Watchtower

I’ve been keeping this blog for about six months now—at least two posts a week for six weeks. On Thursday I hope to reflect more generally on this journey, but today I want to mention the heat that’s involved in any kind of public discourse, no matter how modest.

Why is it worth trying to tell the truth as I see it? It certainly doesn’t make me universally popular. Fortunately, I get more in the way of agreement and support privately from those who say they don’t want to venture more publically (though they often do just that in a necessary context). I’ve been having all kinds of discussions off the blog with people about my willingness to deal with the more public criticism and about my willingness to speak my mind.

And let me note that I’m not perfect, and my blog is a personal rather than a journalistic one. I don’t say unfounded things with no reason, but what I write about is always open to interpretation. I don’t claim to be an economic expert or a psychology expert or a music expert or an expert on the formation of new departments at my university. I have a moderate level of knowledge about any subject I approach, though I remain open and correctable. It’s my hope that there is some shred left of a desire for discussion where people say, “Here are my reasons,” in response to my saying, “Here are my reasons.” That’s what I believe we are called upon to do as supposedly thinking people, especially those pursuing an academic life. Instead, I often find myself in a position where I have outraged someone by speaking (or writing) at all.

I have been fulfilling this position for much of my life. I don’t know how or why it became so important for me to speak my mind and to report what it is I see before me. I do know that it was a role I played in my own family of origin, and I remember reading a book about family dynamics years ago in which I recognized that I was the one who always said the things no one else would say even though they were all thinking the same thing. I was the one who expressed much of the dismay or frustration that everyone else felt.

Even this weekend, I had an exchange with my mother (sorry, Mom!) about an email she’d sent about trying to plan for the holidays. There are certain extended family members who resist communication and who make it all very complicated for my mother and her husband. In their branch of the family, the holidays have long been a power struggle. I told my mother that this year Bruce and I are going to plan for ourselves and extend a few invitations, but that I am not going to undergo eight weeks of hostile negotiations. Period. Eventually, my mother said that she was so sorry she had sent the email and upset me. It took me a few minutes to realize that she was the one who was most upset by this situation, not me. I was expressing her distress. I was naming the problem with the extended family, even though my mother knew full-well what it was.

I don’t know why I am this way. Maybe it has to do with the sub-conscious training in my family to fulfill a certain need others had. Maybe I was just struck in elementary school by The Emperor’s New Clothes, a brilliant children’s book if ever there was one. Maybe it has to do with developing an early chronic illness that the doctors always accused me of lying about (“I know you ate candy.” “I know you didn’t have a low blood sugar.” “I know you skipped your injection.”). Maybe it had to do with my unusual proximity to death and a desire not to waste my time with bullsh*t.

My friend H reminded me this weekend that Virginia Woolf always considered herself an outsider and that she evoked devotion in some and hatred in others. I’m not a “great thinker,” but I do hold up for myself a few fellow truth-tellers that I admire and who have always inspired me: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Adrienne Rich, Claribel Alegría, Tillie Olsen, Susan Brownmiller. These are people who understand the dangers of silence, and I am in good company if I poke some people in the eye.

Today, I present to you Bob Dylan’s song as sung by Jimi Hendrix, and this lovely interpretation of its meaning, the importance of truth to artists, and the importance of outsiders to society. “Let us not talk falsely now, / The hour is getting late.”