It is for us to finish his work
(In view of the revelations of the last few days, I feel compelled to warn you that this is an activist presentation. It is my sincere hope that I do not scare you with my excessive concentration of melanocytes in my skin or my tendency to lapse into some variation of negro dialect from time to time. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I never wanted to be president or be complemented by the likes of the inartful Harry Reid.)
In 1963, a thirty-four year old Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Monument, in the nation’s capital and announced in poetic speech that the “Negro” had come out of the corners of American society, had come, in fact, out of exile in their own land, to cash a check.
At that historic moment, the young Georgia preacher became transfigured; became illumined from within by the socialized well-spring of African-American life; by the instincts, primordial emotions and deep collective images of African and American humanity.
In that moment, his avidity for power, his desire to increase his selfhood and the scope of his authority was transmuted as he truly experienced the magical identification of his innermost self with his God and with his people.
He became translucent, his mind and soul transubstantiated and made like crystal; as a lens to focus the yearnings and aspirations, the hopes and fears of the African dwelling in America for nearly three hundred and fifty years.
With an eloquence tempered in the white-hot fires of the gospel, shaped in the twin crucibles of the American Baptist seminary and the black church, Martin King proclaimed that when the founders of our republic scripted and signed the “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” they also signed a promissory note.
They had in fact signed a contract where they made an unconditional promise in writing to guarantee all Americans the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." They promised to deliver either at a fixed or determinable future time or on demand and under specific terms the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
King said that America had failed to honor that sacred obligation; had given America’s citizens of color a “bad” check and they had come to Washington on that August 28th 1963 day, in more than 2,000 buses, 21 special trains,10 chartered airliners, and uncounted cars, bringing crowds that swelled to almost 300,000 people, 80% of whom were African American, to present again to America, that check, because they refused to believe “that there …[were]…insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
And then before the mesmerized hundreds of thousands before him and the millions watching on television or listening on the radio, he began to speak sooth! He gave over his voice to the yearnings, aspirations, hopes and, yes, dreams ensconced in the African American collective unconscious.
More compelling than the ancient Roman augur taking auspices from the flight of birds, or the pre- and retro cognitions of the modern clairvoyant, Martin Luther King took the psychic elements of the African American soul and like a skilled “father of secrets” tossed them onto the opon ifa of his oratory which semantically and systematically organized what appeared to be disjointed, random facets of the African American experience into a lucent, lucid and prognosticating dream.
He revealed in that dream a vision of equality that this generation and no subsequent generation before this one has yet to achieve. A vision of social equality – the just and equitable treatment of all of our citizens regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, linguistic difference, social status, and ability.
For even though modern science has confirmed that homo sapiens sapiens walked out of Africa 150,000 years ago and again, 80,000 years ago and populated the globe -- that all modern humans are, in fact Africans -- America, the greatest of the world democracies, is still rife with daily instances wherein one individual intentionally or unintentionally targets another for negative treatment because of skin color or other group-based physical, linguistic or religious characteristics; that systems of social structures still produce cumulative, durable, race-based and culture-based inequalities.
The election of Barack Hussein Obama as president of the United States is, perhaps, the signature achievement for many Americans, and most African Americans, of the first decade of the twenty first century. It is an achievement that all Americans should draw considerable pride.
But the real and symbolic value of an Obama presidency does not obfuscate the continuing racialization of poverty, income, space, housing, and land use, the absence of high quality childcare for low income families and children of color, low African American male graduation rates, employment discrimination, racial disparities in sentencing, redlining, disproportionate healthcare, voter suppression, the prison-industrial complex and the pervasive segregation across the entire spectrum of education, among other glaring inequities.
The Obama presidency has drawn millions of marginalized people, and especially young people, into the political process, re-energized that process, appealed openly and consistently to the best, rather than the worst, in us.
Some of the more jaded among us, myself included, who thought his life was forfeit the minute he accepted the nomination, are becoming more cautiously optimistic that he may survive not only his first term but may live to run and win again. His achievements in the first year of his presidency are already more substantial than any other modern president, Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton, notwithstanding.
But Obama, his administration and even congress itself, are not enough to make King’s dream an every day reality. They collectively do not have the capacity. That endeavor requires the energy, commitment and efforts of all like-minded Americans who believe that racism, individual and structural, sexism, heterosexism, linguicism, ableism and all other forms of social inequity should be dismantled and eliminated.
Martin Luther King, jr. was taken from us by an assassin’s bullet forty-one years, nine months and ten days ago, killed while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee,
too soon and before his work was done.
Since January 20, 1986 and for thirty-three subsequent years America, in spite of the opposition of Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, in spite of the reluctance of Republican President Ronald Reagan to sign the holiday into law, in spite of the resistance of Arizona, New Hampshire, Virginia and South Carolina to formally adopt and celebrate the King holiday.
We have come together in various venues resolving to make his dream real. We have sworn a thousand oaths; we have resolved to do better, we have even created activity days to better commemorate the King holiday. So powerfully intoxicating is that dream that we often forget the enormous individual efforts and achievements of the man himself as an example of the kind of energy, effort and commitment it might take to help flesh out this dream.
In 1954, Reverend King was a 25 year old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, completing his doctorate of Divinity. Although his ministry was always a social action ministry, being a member of the executive committee of the NAACP, the murder of fifteen year old Emmett Till on August 28, 1955 (eight years before the March on Washington to the day) and one hundred days later, the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Birmingham bus, propelled him into readiness in December, 1955, to accept the leadership of the first great African American nonviolent demonstration in the United States, the Montgomery bus boycott.
The boycott lasted a year and seventeen days. On December 21, 1956, after the Supreme Court of the United States declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on southern buses, African Americans and whites rode the buses as equals. The personal cost to King? He was arrested, his home was bombed and he was subjected to all manner of personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as one of the most important black leaders of the day.
In 1957 King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide new leadership for the sprawling American civil rights movement.
Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times. He authored five books and numerous articles. In these years, he led a massive peaceful protests in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", called by some the manifesto of the African American revolution.
He planned and led numerous voter registration drives in Alabama, co-directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., where he delivered his "l Have a Dream" speech. He regularly conferred with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and was present when Johnson signed the 1968 Civil Rights Bill into law.
King was arrested twenty times, assaulted at least four times awarded five honorary degrees. He was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963 and was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1964.
What can we do individually and collectively to transform the King dream into an American reality? As a community of learners,
the Miami Dade College faculty, staff and administration, just as we mobilized to develop and implement learning outcomes, we can
1. Come together to identify and address structural racism and structural inequality as the key civil rights challenge for the 21st century.
2. We can organize our productive conversations around the premise that
a. opportunities exist in a complex web of inter-dependent factors, and that to alleviate inequities in any single area, we must first consider the entire structure that supports these inequities.
b. everyone should have fair access to the critical opportunity structures needed to succeed in life; and that affirmatively connecting people to opportunity creates positive, transformative change in communities.
3. We can infuse our respective disciplines with content that brings to the surface the geographic and ideographic footprints of inequality. Social justice issues are never static and new challenges and issues are constantly emerging.
Martin Luther King did not live long enough to see his beloved nation rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. He did not live long enough to see the sons and daughters of slaves and slave master sit together comfortably and by choice around the table of brotherhood. Nor did he live to see the pockets of injustice and oppression, whether in Mississippi or wherever they festered in this country, transformed into places of freedom and justice. He did not even live long enough to see his four children grow up.
It is for us to finish his work. Can we do it? Are we up to it? Cynics might say that it will never happen. Who could expect such from the powerful historical exploiters, the villains or the ne’er-do-wells. Who could expect such from the oppressed, dispossessed and disenfranchised. I take courage from poet Countee Cullen pondering the mysterious movements of God:
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
And James Weldon Johnson who extols in two stanzas the achievements of a people brought so low:
O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?
Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As "Steal away to Jesus"? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great "Jordan roll"? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot "swing low"? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
"Nobody knows de trouble I see"?
©Joseph D. McNair;2010