Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: Why It Matters

Today, we mark the national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The memorial is the first to honor an African American on the National Mall and its adjoining memorial parks and is the result of more than two decades of planning, fund-raising and construction. The efforts began early on by Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity (King had been an active member). It was dedicated in October,2011, making today the first time that we’ve celebrated the holiday with a national monument in King’s honor.

Critics of the memorial, such as this one writing at The Economist, object to the memorial on both aesthetic and political grounds, calling it a ‘blockheaded’ design that is merely state-sponsored ‘propaganda,’ not in keeping with the values of equality that King championed. (One suspects that this critique is rooted as much in xenophobia about the Chinese sculptor and imported granite as it is in the objection to honoring King, but I digress.)

I couldn’t disagree more. I think the King memorial matters for our national conversation about race.

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(Photo credit: Julie Netherland)

On a recent visit to the memorial, I was struck by conversations happening all around me about civil rights, about Dr. King’s legacy, about racial equality and justice. (There’s a great art / ethnographic project to be done here, setting up audio recorders to grab snippets of conversations heard around the memorial.)

Along with individual kids with their moms or dads, there were also small and large groups of students with teachers and guides, talking about the quotes by Dr. King etched in stone along the wall behind the large statue, using the monument as a way to teach about civil rights.

Given the monument’s significance as a place for enabling the ‘teachable moment,’ it’s also important to get it right.

One of the inscriptions on the monument reads “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.” The problem? King never said those words, at least, not exactly. The actual quote comes from this sermon about a eulogy someone might give at his funeral, and it goes like this:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

As Maya Angelou notes the shortened, paraphrased text misleads:  “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. He had no arrogance at all. He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”

Secretary of the Interior Salazar has issued a statement saying that the quote will be corrected.

Perhaps most striking moment for me on my visit  was the scene inside the gift store near the monument. There are no t-shirts or mugs or bobble-head dolls inside, only books and DVDs about the civil rights movement and Dr. King, many of these children’s books. Because the memorial is part of the National Park Service, the bookstore is staffed by Park Rangers.

And, while I was there, you could hear the voice of a Park Ranger reading a children’s book about the civil rights movement to a group of school children sitting on the floor in a circle.

That’s why the monument is important. Attacking Dr. King and his legacy is a key strategy of opponents of civil rights.   It’s an object that officially recognizes King’s legacy and contribution to civil rights in the U.S., and it opens up a space for having a conversation about what the legacy means and how it’s relevant today.

And that, I think is priceless.

Martin Luther King: Speech about South Africa

Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, I wanted to share one of King’s lesser known speeches, about South Africa.   In the speech, delivered at my institution Hunter College in 1965 (h/t colleague Larry Shore), King addresses media portrayals of Africa as ‘barbaric,’  the institution of white supremacy in South Africa, the connection between black Americans and Africa, and the hope of progressive political action between blacks and whites.

mlk

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Dakota Blue Harper)

In the opening of his 1965 speech, given on Human Rights Day (December 10), King addresses the common stereotype about Africa and calls out the system of white supremacy:

“Africa has been depicted for more than a century as the home of black cannibals and ignorant primitives. Despite volumes of facts contraverting this picture, the stereotype persists in books, motion pictures, and other media of communication. Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious and civilized, but whose conduct and philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians. We are in an era in which the issue of human rights is the central question confronting all nations. In this complex struggle an obvious but little appreciated fact has gained attention-the large majority of the human race is non-white-yet it is that large majority which lives in hideous poverty. While millions enjoy an unexampled opulence in developed nations, ten thousand people die of hunger each and every day of the year in the undeveloped world. To assert white supremacy, to invoke white economic and military power, to maintain the status quo is to foster the danger of international race war . . . What does the South African Government contribute to this tense situation? These are the incendiary words of the South African philosophy spoken by its Prime Minister, Dr. Verwoerd: “We want to keep South Africa white. Keeping it white can only mean one thing, namely, white domination, not ‘leadership’, not ‘guidance’, but control, supremacy.”

The South African Government to make the white supreme has had to reach into the past and revive the nightmarish ideology and practices of nazism. We are witnessing a recrudescence of the barbarism which murdered more humans than any war in history. In South Africa today, all opposition to white supremacy is condemned as communism, and in its name, due process is destroyed; a medieval segregation is organized with twentieth century efficiency and drive; a sophisticated form of slavery is imposed by a minority upon a majority which is kept in grinding poverty; the dignity of human personality is defiled; and world opinion is arrogantly defied.”

Few people celebrating King’s legacy today realize that in addition to being a civil right leader in the U.S., King also saw that struggle as connected to other struggles for human rights around the globe.  King was also presciently aware of the connection between white supremacy in the U.S. and the system in South Africa, several decades before anti-apartheid became a popular political movement here.     King goes on the speech to highlight a Pan-African sensibility, explicitly drawing connections between the continent of Africa and, in the language of his day, “the American Negro.”  He goes on to extend the struggle to include whites as well:

“For the American Negro there is a special relationship with Africa. It is the land of his origin. It was despoiled by invaders; its culture was arrested and concealed to justify white supremacy. The American Negro’s ancestors were not only driven into slavery, but their links with their past were severed so that their servitude might be psychological as well as physical. In this period when the American Negro is giving moral leadership and inspiration to his own nation, he must find the resources to aid his suffering brothers in his ancestral homeland. Nor is this aid a one-way street. The civil rights movement in the United States has derived immense inspiration from the successful struggles of those Africans who have attained freedom in their own nation’s. The fact that black men govern States, are building democratic institutions, sit in world tribunals, and participate in global decision-making gives every Negro a needed sense of dignity.

In this effort, the American Negro will not be alone. As this meeting testifies, there are many white people who know that liberty is indivisible. Even more inspiring is the fact that in South Africa itself incredibly brave white people are risking their careers, their homes and their lives in the cause of human justice. Nor is this a plea to Negroes to fight on two fronts. The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains. The brotherhood of man is not confined within a narrow, limited circle of select people. It is felt everywhere in the world; it is an international sentiment of surpassing strength. Because this is true, when men of good will finally unite, they will be invincible.”

On this day, on what would have been Dr. King’s 82nd birthday, we still need those of good will to finally unite in the cause of human justice.

If you’d like to know more about the connection between white supremacy in the U.S. and in South Africa, I recommend any of the books by George Frederickson on this subject, including the classic White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History (Oxford University Press, 1982).    And, if you’d like to learn more about the connections between U.S. and South Africa, I encourage you to check out Larry Shore and Tami Gold’s documentary, RFK in the Land of Apartheid: Ripple of Hope.

Celebrating MLK with Lessons from Obama’s Inauguration

A couple of articles have inspired me to add a brief word about this MLK Day. (See Boyce Watkins at TheGrio.com) Hopefully, my words are in keeping with both the spirit and beliefs of Dr. King himself.

A year ago this week, I joined nearly 3 million people in the nation’s capital for the inauguration of President Obama. The entire week, especially inauguration day, encapsulated much of what I understand about the “civil rights” movement and Dr. King’s legacy. Being a child of the 1980s, my understanding of Dr. King and the movement is a contested conglomeration of familial discussions, white-frame “civil rights” history, and independent study. Like most people my age, I may well be more in touch with the myth than the memory of King.

The morning of the inauguration seemed to mirror King’s 1963 march. The crowd came from all over the country and braved extreme temperatures (if on opposite ends of the thermometer) with grace and enthusiasm. The millions on the Mall that morning were very conscious of the parallels between contemporary and 1963 events. I saw hundreds of middle-aged and elderly African Americans making their way to the service. Everyone was so appreciative of their presence and sacrifices. I am convinced no Black person over age 60 would have had to so much as touch the ground with her own feet if she did not want. It was truly a remarkable and unforgettable moment.

The event itself was a reflection of what we were all celebrating. In name, we were witnessing a ceremony centered on one man, Barack Obama. In truth, we were actually there to culminate and celebrate a massive, multiracial, cross-coalitional effort that we hoped would produce meaningful and lasting institutional change. Everyone cheered the new president, but we all shared stories of sustained local efforts to mobilize America’s oppressed classes. The mass effort and happy gathering reflect the hopeful imagery and activist narrative associated with Dr. King.

After partying with friends (and strangers), I decided it was time to go home. On the edge of one of D.C.’s many Black neighborhoods, I found myself in need of a cab to get home. After a few blocks, I reached a busy corner and tried hailing a cab. Despite the festive occasion, I received the same treatment we Black men (and women) receive all the time. Cab after cab passed me by and quickly picked up white passengers.

A young white woman, whose name I still do not know, witnessed the entire scene. The hour growing very late at this point, she confidently approached me with a brilliant offer. If I would use my status as Black and male to safely escort her to the next corner where she was meeting some friends, she would use her status as a white female to get me a cab. I quickly agreed. Within 30 seconds of connecting her with her friends, the white woman told me to follow her to a cab. She said she would hail the cab and when the cabbie opened the door for her (a taken for granted response), I was to jump in. Local law, apparently, prevented cabbies from evicting passengers without cause. Needless to say, she executed the plan flawlessly and got me home without at hitch.

The past year, like inauguration day itself, is a microcosm of Dr. King’s life and legacy. Having won symbolic federal victories and peering briefly over the mountain at the potential for meaningful change. We forgot that these victories required massive mobilization and sustained multiracial, cross-class effort. Instead, we allowed white media to attribute the work to one man, and we left that man to carry it out virtually alone. In life, Dr. King never labored alone. But the mythological legacy recast him as a great man, producing systemic change through personal will and determination alone. That myth, now thrown onto Obama, has left Obama to labor alone (to the extent he actually wants to). Obama’s isolation is evidenced by the general failure of the DNC to remobilize the massive campaign volunteers in support of the president’s agenda (see NYT article “Health Debate Fails to Ignite Obama’s Grassroots” and The Washington Post’s “Obama’s Machine Sputters in Effort to Push Budget” for examples.

Part of the reason the multiracial grassroots effort “sputters” also parallels King’s life and legacy. Despite the rhetoric of the times, neither the day-to-day structure of the United States remained then and now. My anecdote about getting a cab makes the case for the moment of Obama’s inauguration. As Dr. Watkins’s points out, “Dr. King was very unpopular at the time of his death” as he tried to realize the goals outlined in his speeches. Whites never fully embraced King in life. Their support for his impotent corpse and white-framed memory would not convince Dr. King.

Obama’s situation is similar. As Harvey-Wingfield and Feagin (2010) document, the majority of whites voted against now President Obama. A recent article in The New York Times () documents whites’ increasing opposition to Obama:

According to an analysis of New York Times and CBS News polls, Obama has the lowest approval rating among whites at the end of his first year in office than any president in the 30 years that The Times and CBS News have collected such data. And the gap between Obama and the others is significant, ranging from 10 to 36 percentage points.

Like Israelites in the wilderness, whites dream of Egypt, a plurality saying Obama is a worse president than George W. Bush.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I hope and pray we will learn the lessons Dr. King taught us. Regardless of what the majority of people say, progressive American rhetoric remains miles ahead of its deeds (see King’s brilliant sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”) and gradualism is not the answer. Only collective action, creative and sustained civil disobedience, and mobilization of people of color and poor–for whom cooptation and/or cessation are not viable options—are the only potential means for achieving and sustaining real and systemic change.

Martin Luther King: I’ve been to the mountaintop

Today, the U.S. celebrates Martin Luther King Day as a national day of remembrance for Dr. King and the civil rights struggle. This is Dr. King’s last speech, given the night before he was assassinated, on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee:

Martin Luther King, Jr: “Mountaintop” speech full length from Filip Goc on Vimeo.

The full text transcript of the speech is available here.

Powerful New Civil Rights Documentary: “Soundtrack for a Revolution”

While the nation will celebrate the holiday on Monday, today is the actual birthday of Martin Luther King. He would have been 81 years old today had he lived. There seems no more fitting way to celebrate than to share this new documentary about the music of the civil rights movement, “Soundtrack to a Revolution.” The film is on the short list for upcoming Academy Awards. Here is a short (about 2 minutes) trailer for the film:

I had the chance to see this film last weekend at the Tribeca Film Institute (random name-drop: Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte were there). The film follows the story of the civil rights movement by charting the music that was most powerfully identified with it. There are moving, contemporary versions of classic songs sung by top musicians in studio settings and there are engaging, acapella renditions of these songs sung by the people who lived through the movement. My personal favorite was Richie Havens singing a civil rights ballad over images of civil rights pioneers – black and white – who were killed in the fight for racial justice.

It’s an excellent film that would be suitable for using in the classroom for teaching about race, political struggle and resistance, the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King. In a Q&A session with the filmmakers following the screening, they noted that educating young people about the civil rights movement was one of their intended purposes in creating the film. Sadly, they also noted that in pre-screening the film in high schools that a majority of students and their teachers (!) did not know most of the civil rights leaders featured in the film.

If you’re considering using the film in a college classroom, I have a couple of companion book recommendations. The first is a wonderfully creative way of looking at social movements through the art that inspired them, called The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle,by T.V. Reed. The second is a compelling analysis of the way television was used by the civil rights movement, and in particular, how prescient Dr. King was in his use of television, called Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights,by Sasha Torres. Both books are excellent, and suitable for advanced undergraduates or graduate students, and will further elaborate some of the themes addressed in the film.

Open Thread: Thoughts on a Post-Racial America?

According to a new CNN poll around two-thirds of blacks asked indicated that they believed Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had been fulfilled (h/t RaceWire). This is a marked increase (up from 34% ) who indicated similar feelings in a poll taken in March, 2008. Now compare that to whites who only had a small increase from 35% to 46%.

I shared the graph I created from these findings with students in my Ethnic & Race Relations course (hello students who are reading this!).

Prior to sharing these results, I talked about the media discussion of America as post-racial. They listened to the statement by NPR’s Daniel Schorr. I showed this clip from CNN’s coverage (opens YouTube video) of the election (h/t Sociological Images). I also passed around The New York Times from the day after the election which announced: “OBAMA Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.” I then asked students: are we in a post-racial society?

There were a lot of really thoughtful answers. One student asked if it was post-racial (race no longer matters) or post-racist (no longer racist) – indicating we were not the first but moving towards the second. Another pointed out the generational differences, younger whites voted for Obama in large numbers. Still others noted that it seems with his victory that we are judging now on character and not based on race. Largely, the white students in the class gave voice to the opinion that we were NOT post-racial, while the minority students argued that we were (although one young lady had not made up her mind – fair enough, in my opinion). (Of course, students reading this, feel free to comment below about what you think if I misrepresented you).

The remaining class time was spent discussing and showing examples of personal levels of racism (such as Obama bucks, sock monkeys, statements that B.H.O. is a terrorist and the assumptions about Muslims and Arabs these stereotypes reveal). We also discussed Nas’ Black President. At the end, I returned to structural racism and historical causes as the main reasons we are not, and will not soon be, “post-racial” – reasons we will explore in the coming weeks.

Here is the question: Why the difference in perceptions between blacks and whites on the question of fulfilling MLK’s dream? We weren’t sure. We explored the idea of the front stage and back stage as discussed so well by Picca and Feagin. I similarly mentioned Tim Wise’s discussion of white bonding that he brings up in White Like Me (a book we’ll be reading later in the semester). What do you think?

~ Bridget
Sociology Instructor
Midwest U.S.

The Dream and the Election

Art Gallery window, GeorgetownToday, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the first black president of the United States (Creative Commons License photo credit: runneralan2004 ). The inauguration ceremony will take place the day after the nation commemorates the birth of our greatest civil rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As Jessie noted in her post yesterday, many of us are contemplating this confluence of events.   What would Dr. King say about the nation now that it has elected a black man as its forty-fourth president?  Would he say that “the Dream” has been fulfilled, that America has finally become a post-racial society? Would he advise little black boys and girls that they no longer have to deal with the unspoken or spoken belief that opportunities are limited by race?

If Dr. King were alive today, he certainly would have a front row seat at the inauguration ceremony. His mind would probably race through the defining moments in African American history.  He would see generations after generations of blacks in the prime of their lives being hunted down like animals, separated from their families and villages, and loaded onto ships anchored off the coast of West African. We would feel the pain of his ancestors who were packed like sardines into the belly of these ships for the long voyage to America and then forced to work from dawn to dusk for over two centuries just to provide economic and social comfort for white Americans. Going through the mind of the very old Dr. King would be the words of the nation’s highest court written with such unabashed racism in the Dred Scott decision (1856):

“the negro had  for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and so the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Dr. King might remind himself that Chief Justice Taney’s words were merely reflective of the attitudes of the vast majority of white Americans toward blacks at the time. He might quiver as he thought about the magnitude of the hatred whites had for blacks and the incredible amount of social disadvantage that racism placed in the lives of blacks both enslaved and free blacks alike.

Sitting in the January cold, the elderly Dr. King would also reflect upon post-slavery America.  Especially now, it is difficult to fathom that, but for a brief period of reconstruction, slavery was not replaced by a system of equal rights. The system of racial savery folded into a regime of racially repressive laws in the South and racially repressive social norms in the North. These Jim Crow laws and customs were constitutionalized by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  Jim Crow forced blacks into the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst educational systems, and the worst social position.

Dr. King must feel a warm sensation as he thinks about mid-twentieth century America. After the Second World War (the war to save free societies), most intelligent Americans knew that Jim Crow’s days were numbered. Dr. King played a central role in the eventual death of Jim Crow. But the Supreme Court struck the first significant blow against this regime of racial oppression when in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Court overturned school segregation laws in every state of the Union. With the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and early 1970s, Congress struck the final blow, killing de jure segregation and outlawing racial discrimination in most segments of American life.

The death of Jim Crow has brought unprecedented racial opportunities for blacks. There are many wealthy and influential black Americans (such as the oft-cited Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and the black captains of industry) as well as many political successes, including black congresspersons, governors, presidential appointees, and now, of course, the presidency itself with the election of Barack Obama.

Dr. King would certainly acknowledge African-American racial progress. But he would probably be more concerned about the great racial challenges still facing the nation. He would be troubled by the fact that, even as the first black president of the United States is being sworn in: about 21% of black families (compared to only 6% of white families) live below the poverty line, the median annual family income for whites is $26,000 higher than that for blacks; white males with bachelor or advanced degrees earn about $20,000 a year more than their black male counterparts; young black men are seven times more likely to go to prison than young white men, and less than half as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than young white men; and the median net worth (bank accounts, stocks, bonds,  real estate, and other assets) of white families is ten time more than that of black families.

As the very old and very wise Dr. King takes in the events of this historic day, he can only conclude that America is far from being a post-racial society.  The election does not complete “the Dream,” it only keeps it alive.

~ Roy L. Brooks
Warren Distinguished Professor of Law
University of San Diego – School of Law