Memory and Wonder: Thoughts on Martin Luther King, JR

By Guest Columnist Jan 15, 2007

The memory is such an amazing and deceptive tool. I was just on KALW’s Your Call discussing the legacy of Martin Luther King, JR and the state of non-violent resistance and protest today. The question was posed – wouldn’t a modern-day MLK be disempowered and kept from having an impact. Moreover, the host wanted to know if marches today had any significance. I realized that in the last year, history has shifted again, that we have collectively started forgetting the real political climate of MLK’s era. Today people will take to the streets to remember Martin, and the memory that has been hallmarked for our remembering is the inspirational story of the great speaker who rallied the masses towards justice and racial equality. What will be less remembered is that Martin, who has been reframed as an American hero, was in reality a voice of great American dissent who mobilized masses in spite of being shunned and attacked by the power of the day and then assassinated. In the years since his murder, the laws around what non-violent protesters cannot do have been tightened and heightened, with those who continue to engage in front line non-violent direct action in the U.S. labeled domestic terrorists. In the years since his murder, the virus of oppression has evolved faster than our responses to it. While on the surface of this nation, there is a veneer of equality, deep down the cup is empty, the soul is lacking, we still choose the easy and inhumane route more often than not, we’re not trying hard enough. Those in power didn’t want an MLK then, we celebrate MLK now because he poses no new threats. What will be less remembered was the nuanced state of affairs within the black movement during MLK’s brief period of impact. The tactic of non-violence was a controversial one, and for good reason. It is justifiable and socialized that when we are attacked, oppressed, made to go hungry, given no opportunities for realizing our calling – that under such circumstances we battle, we go to war. I mean occasionally we do the imperialist thing and pack up our suffering and oppression, move to someone else’s land and start setting up a new home – unfortunately as soon as we get there we unpack our oppression on this brand new place, and suddenly notice there are people there…before long we’re back in the fight with a different role. But it’s the same old thing, it’s the human way. We always fight, that’s what is respected. Non-violence is a call that has been unanswered for much of history. It is actually hard to prove it’s success. A people who are still oppressed can only view their success relative to the last remembered instance of struggle. Our memories are so heavy laden with the recent. It’s so tempting each time we celebrate King’s legacy to examine it – are we relatively better? Relatively free? Having moved from legislated segregation to economically enforced educational segregation, can we claim success? Having moved from cotton fields into prisons, or communities facing resource abandonment, can we cry victory? Having moved from poll taxes and 3/5 of people to wide-scale African-American (and other communities whose common theme is disproportionate and continuous poverty) targeted voter disenfranchisement, can we exclaim our impact on the structure of our government? Oh but we know we have seen improvements – to see the whites-only signs come down has to unlock something in the heart. Such moments of human evolution are few and far between, and rarely deep enough. And I say that as someone on a constant search for a variety of dreams, who spends a lot of time unveiling dreams, who spends a lot of time in a place of vision and wonderment…not enough dreams come true, and what will be less remembered is that MLK wanted his dreams to come true, not just to stay sleeping and having wonderful fantasies. Today, speaking at the Martin Luther King Day March in Detroit, MI, Maureen Taylor said "You get what you organize to take." I think Martin was deeply involved in adding to the foundation needed for communities to take what they needed from this short life we all share. There are many ways to analyze the impact of Martin, and it is always easier to idolize or critique the brave and the dead than to contend with them as human, so I will try to avoid that. Instead, I want to put forth some things I have wondered about: 1. How do you teach people to notice, indulge in and pursue their dreams, rather than just sharing your own dreams? 2. When vocalizing dissent becomes criminalized in a state of terror, how do you register discontent? 3. In a moment where media and history are blurring together, and attention spans are too short to allow for icons such as MLK to easily orate their way into our hearts (we’re always waiting for the scandal shoe to drop), how do we develop young leaders with the ability to call people to action, frame big ideas and change history as MLK did? 4. Do organizers today have the discipline and desire for change? "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love." – MLK, Jr.