No better time for MLK memorial
by Kelvin Wade
Today, October 16, 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will be dedicated on the National Mall. The dedication comes 48 years after the iconic 17 minute “I Have a Dream” speech King delivered during the 1963 March on Washington.
The memorial features the “Mountain of Despair,” which has been cut in two. It leads to the 30-foot tall “Stone of Hope” where a sculpture of King, arms folded in front of him, emerges overlooking the Tidal Basin. Marble walls holding 14 quotes from Dr. King surround the memorial.
The 15-year, $120 million project is a stunning achievement and the nation should be proud to honor this great American patriot.
While there is no denying that Dr. King is worthy of such a monument on the National Mall, the reverence felt for King now is in stark contrast to his final days. Martyrdom at age 39 has made it easy to freeze frame the “I Have a Dream” King in the consciousness of Americans. But had King lived, I doubt he’d be so universally respected or loved.
Why do I say that? At the time of his death, King was already moving beyond race to the struggles of class. He was pushing for economic justice. He was planning a poor people’s campaign that would dwarf the earlier March on Washington. He’d become a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy. And by 1967 he’d already dropped off the Top Ten list of most admired Americans put out annually by Life Magazine. One could say he was broadening his enemies list.
When you look and see how his colleagues, Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, and Walter Fauntroy are viewed by the public today, why would anyone think a Martin Luther King Jr. would be viewed differently? What would right wing radio be saying about him if he’d survived?
While we celebrate the life’s work of this drum major for peace and justice, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the hollowness of conservatives championing King today. People who shout about states rights, and question the Civil Rights Act out of one side of their mouths, heap praise on King out of the other.
Senator Rand Paul opposes the Civil Rights Act but says he would’ve marched with Dr. King. As Bill Maher quips, you don’t get points for what you would have done in your imagination.
It’s galling to listen to conservatives claim that King was a conservative. Or worse, they use a single line from his “I Have a Dream” speech about the “content of our character” to pretend that King would be opposed to affirmative action. This comes from people who haven’t read King’s 1964 bestseller “Why We Can’t Wait” or his other books. These folks haven’t listened to King’s many other speeches. They haven’t read his 1965 interview in Playboy magazine.
What is truly upsetting to me is that we won’t let King evolve. We want to freeze him in 1963. But King evolved. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, King saw that the laws needed teeth. He saw that there was a class struggle going on. What good was it to be able to sit at the lunch counter if you had no money to buy lunch?
If we thought the civil rights movement Dr. King was radical, he truly became revolutionary when he started excoriating income disparity and representing the poor of all races. Dr. King said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
If King were alive, he would certainly be advocating for the black community that has been so horrifically harmed during the Great Recession. But King would’ve been all over Wall Street like Jesus with the moneychangers in the temple. King would be marching with the young people, claiming he was the 99 Percent. No doubt. King would’ve led this protest years ago.
That was where King was shifting his focus to. King saw war and militarism and corporate profiteers draining money away from the masses. The wealthy was eating more and more of the pie and the rest of us, of all races, were left to fight over the scraps. He saw it happening in the ‘60s and it continues today. King was right then and King is still right.
There is no more relevant monument in 2011 America than a Martin Luther King Memorial. But only if we really know who Martin Luther King Jr. was.