by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
November 7, 2013
KEEPING IT REAL: MARTIN LUTHER KING'S PROGRESSIVE VISION
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The whitewashed, sanitized Martin Luther King Jr. was trotted out on Aug. 24 for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
For too many Americans, their awareness of Dr. King begins and ends with the "I Have a Dream" speech he delivered on the national mall in 1963.
The Dr. King that called for resistance against the "giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism" was nowhere to be seen at the celebration.
Nor was the Dr. King that said, "The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.'
Nor was the Dr. King that said, "If an American is concerned only about his nation, he will not be concerned about the peoples of Asia, Africa, or South America. Is this not why nations engage in the madness of war without the slightest sense of penitence? Is this not why the murder of a citizen of your own nation is a crime, but the murder of citizens of another nation in war is an act of heroic virtue?
Nor was the Dr. King that called the United States, "the greatest purveyor of violence today," a nation with plenty of money for war, but pennies for the poor.
That's why, as Professor Cornell West said in an interview on the Pacifica Radio program "Democracy Now!" recently, the Martin Luther King Jr. of the last four years of his life would not have been invited to the 50th anniversary celebration.
"Brother Martin would not be invited to the very march in his name," West said, "because he would talk about drones, he'd talk about Wall Street criminality, he would talk about the working class being pushed to the margins as profits went up for corporate executives and their compensation, he would talk about the legacies of white supremacy."
"Will the connection between drones, new Jim Crow, prison-industrial complex, attacks on the working class, escalating profits at the top, be talked about and brought together during that march? I don't hold my breath. But Brother Martin's spirit would want somebody to push it."
Professor West was right. No one wanted to address the issues that Dr. King advocated in the last years of his life. No one wanted to face what Dr. King called "the fierce urgency of now."
The economic dimension of the Civil Rights Movement - that black Americans living in poverty would never achieve equality with whites as long as the paths to upward mobility were closed to people of color - remains with us today.
And the triple evils of militarism, materialism, and racism are even more deeply entrenched in our society than they were five decades ago.
Today in the United States, black unemployment remains double that of whites. The number of black children living in poverty is triple that of whites. A black teenager today has a one in three chance of going to prison during his lifetime.
By every measure - from infant mortality, to educational achievement, to workplace mobility, to income inequality, to living over life expectancy - black Americans are still, as Dr. King described it, living "on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."
People often forget that in the days before Dr. King's was gunned down in Memphis in 1968, he was supporting the demands of the city's sanitation workers for better pay and working conditions and the right to unionize. In his mind, prosperity was inseparable from equality.
Yes, since 1963, the codified, legal discrimination that black Americans faced has been dismantled. But the historical legacy of racism still remains.
After the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 earlier this year, Republican-controlled legislatures across the country are coming up with voting laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters. One in 13 blacks cannot vote in America - about 2.2 million - because of felon disenfranchisement laws.
According to Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow," there are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850. While blacks comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for more than half of the shooting deaths.
With 50 years of distance, the March on Washington is part of what Dr. West calls "the Santa Clausification" of Martin Luther King Jr. Forgotten is how controversial the match was.
President Kennedy tried to get its organizers to call it off. The FBI tried to discourage people from coming. The Justice Department was standing by to cut off the microphone when Dr. King was speaking, for fear that something inflammatory might be said. And opinion polls at the time showed twice as many Americans disapproved of the march than supported it.
The themes that Dr. King sounded in the last five years of his life still resonate today. And a new generation of activists are reviving those themes, and preventing the vision of the original movement from being buried under the gauzy glow of feel-good nostalgia.
They could be seen at the margins of last Aug. 24's events, but they will be front and center soon.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.