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MLK: Much More Than a Dream
America must reclaim King from soundbite purgatory.
By Byron Williams
Martin Luther King Jr. died on April 4, 1968. Theoretically speaking, however, the date of King's death may have very well been August 28, 1963. The latter date commemorates the day King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, easily one of the greatest examples of oratory in American history.
The greatness of the speech notwithstanding, it has served to fuel our idol worship of King without having to engage authentically with the King legacy.
For as much as we quote and misquote King's homily on that hot Washington afternoon, we have collectively found it easier to repeat his words than to replicate his actions.
Frozen in time by the repeated sound bites from "I Have a Dream" reduces King to a convenient 21st century shill that justifies the rollbacks of affirmative action and supports the dehumanization of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
The King that electrified the Washington Mall in 1963 and caused J. Edgar Hoover to consider him "The most dangerous Negro in America," has now morphed into milquetoast, joining the ranks of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Jimi Hendrix as celebrities that posthumously earn as much, if not more money, than when they were alive.
Between the grainy black and white footage that makes its annual appearance around this time and his moonlighting as a spokesperson for several Fortune 500 companies, it is hard to imagine that King might have something profound to say about present-day America beyond his famous "dream".
It is this theoretical King that is harmless, passive, and non-threatening. King's former colleague Vincent Harding describes the current practice of whitewashing King as creating "the gentle, non-abrasive hero whose recorded speeches can be used as inspirational resources for rocking our memories to sleep."
The watered-down version of King fails to reveal that he was quintessential American. His commitment to being a change agent was connected to his belief in the possibility of America.
King was unwilling to give up on an America that was all too willing to give up on itself, seeking a false refuge in the cesspool of racism, bigotry, and second-class citizenship.
How strange to consider that amidst an immoral war in Iraq, an unstable economy, and attempts by the Bush Adminstration to privatize Social Security the political left would struggle with defining its moral compass, its values, and its patriotism.
A Martin Luther King released from the shackles of 1963 could inform this generation that not only are all three achievable, but vital to the preservation our democracy.
In his final speech on April 3, 1968, King demonstrates his mastery of American ideals to illustrate the hypocrisy of the city of Memphis' injunction to block the march of its sanitation workers:
"All we say to America is, be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or Russia, maybe I could understand that the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn't committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right."
When we leave King on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, we also leave his prophetic evolution. University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson describes it as the shift in King's approach from the nonviolent passive resistance of the Montgomery bus boycott to the "aggressive nonviolence" of the Poor People's Campaign, from the nonviolent persuasion of the March on Washington to the nonviolent coercion of mass civil disobedience.
As America's moral voice, the King legacy can inform us about war, a just economy, equality, and an agape love that promotes esprit de corps.
Martin Luther King was much larger than "I Have a Dream." Are we bold enough to find out?
Byron Williams writes a weekly political/social commentary at Byronspeaks.com. Byron serves as pastor of the Resurrection Community Church in Oakland, California.
(c) 2004, www.byronspeaks.com
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