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Dr. King: Yesterday and Today

January 22, 2011

Poverty_in_america(2) Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending WNYC's fifth annual Martin Luther King Day event, the topic of which was "Made in America: King's Dream in Today's Economy." Held at the Brooklyn Museum and sponsored in part by the Brooklyn Community Foundation, the event was led by WYNC's Brian Lehrer, WQXR's Terrance McKnight, and Princeton University associate professor of politics and African American studies Melissa Harris-Perry.

During the two-hour event, the panelists -- Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) national chair Roy Innis, New York Theological Seminary professor Obery Hendricks, Domestic Workers United organizer Christine Yvette Lewis, Brooklyn College professor Jeanne Theoharis, history professor and author Peniel Joseph, and youth organizer Natalia Aristizabal-Betancur -- emphasized how we should remember the fullness of who Dr. King was and not, as Obery Hendricks put it, the "domesticated, watered-down...figure that we see on coffee mugs and key rings."

With that in mind, here are a few notes and takeaways from the discussion:

All labor has dignity. WNYC kicked off the event by playing a portion of King's final prophetic speech in Memphis, which he delivered in support of striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple on the evening before his assassination. (The recording can be found on a new CD that accompanies a new collection of Dr. King's speeches, All Labor Has Dignity.) After the clip, Obery Hendricks pointed out how economic rights were just as important as civil rights to Dr. King, who once said: "The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty."

He died "fighting the fight." King, from his teens to his death, spent his life fighting for equal rights. However, it wasn't until the end of his life, the period from 1965-68, that he took a stand for economic, social, and political justice -- making him the most dangerous person in America. "After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King becomes a pillar of fire because he realizes that democracy has to be re-imagined," said Joseph, "not just for black people, but for everyone. And he starts to work with the labor movement -- a movement for economic justice that recruit[s] poor whites, Mexicans, young people involved in gangs in Chicago [and] also in Appalachia...."

Radical democracy. A few of the panelists agreed that if Dr. King were alive today, his rhetoric would set him apart from most faith leaders, who too often seem to be about entertaining and making people feel good rather than about advancing the cause of social justice. Dr. King also would find himself at a critical remove from conservative political philosophy, said Hendricks, "because conservatism -- in its historical form -- is about maintaining power and wealth as it is." Dr. King, in contrast, believed in radical democracy, as this excerpt from his speech at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis on March 18, 1968, illustrates:

You know, Jesus reminded us in a magnificent parable one day that a man went to Hell because he didn't see the poor. And his name was Dives. There was a man by the name of Lazarus who came daily to his gate in need of the basic necessities of life. Dives didn't do anything about it. He ended up going to Hell....

Dives went to Hell because he passed by Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. Dives went to Hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible. Dives went to Hell because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. Dives went to Hell because he maximized the minimum, and minimized the maximum. Dives finally went to Hell because he wanted to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.

And I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell, if we don't use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty, to make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to Hell....

Dr. King wasn't a physically imposing man, but he was a tremendously courageous man who risked his life time again to challenge orthodoxy and expose hypocrisy and injustice. "That is who he was," said Hendricks, "and that is how we should remember and honor him...."

For more about the event, including excerpts from the panelists' presentation, visit the WNYC blog here.

-- Regina Mahone

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