What Would Dr. King Say About Our Current State?
MLK's memorial dedication highlighted his highs and our lows
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” (1963)
The dedication for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial started early. Little girls stumbling as they wiped the sleep from their eyes, early. Dads yawing so wide the path in front of them disappeared, early. But exhaustion was no match for their joy. With all the smiling and handshaking going on, you would swear you were at church, welcoming the visitors after the morning’s announcements. But if you closed your eyes and listened, you would think you’d landed at a campaign event. We might have been there to honor the legacy of a black leader of days gone by, but the legacy of the black leader of today loomed large.
To listen to the talking heads, the folks who supported President Obama during his first run have defected in the wake of 16% black unemployment and a ten-year war. But the crowd gathered on the Mall didn’t see that cable news show, as chants of “Four more years!” broke out whenever the POTUS was mentioned.
In his remarks, NAACP Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond asked “What would Dr. King think about our world today?” What would this man, who said in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” think of the progress America has made since the first black president was elected in 2008?
Most of the day’s speakers had opinions on the matter. Many thought Dr. King would cheer on the Occupy Wall Street protesters, as they use nonviolent means to make a point (however nascent that point may be). Reverend Al Sharpton said he’d think justice had been contorted when a man could be executed on recanted evidence. Reverend Jesse Jackson felt MLK would be sad in the face of expensive wars, concentrated wealth living next door to extreme poverty, and jobs leaving American soil.
Campaign issues were standing center stage when Elder Bernice King reminded us that her father once said “There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will,” then said, “We should never adjust to any person being without healthcare.” Jackson minced no words when he said, “Many are willing to sink the ship just to destroy the captain,” in reference to the GOP. Sharpton yelled to the crowd, “This [election] is not about President Obama. It's about our mama!” Ambassador Andrew Young couldn’t have been clearer in his intent when he said, “We need to keep a president in office that has your interests at heart and if we don't do that this year, God help us.”
As the sun cycled overhead and people were moved to put on the free commemorative hats we received on the way in, it was hard not to draw parallels between the president and Dr. King—especially since President Obama did it himself in his speech: “So it is right for us to celebrate today Dr. King’s dream and his vision of unity. And yet it is also important on this day to remind ourselves that such progress did not come easily; that Dr. King’s faith was hard-won; that it sprung out of a harsh reality and some bitter disappointments…We forget now, but during his life, Dr. King wasn’t always considered a unifying figure. Even after rising to prominence, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was vilified by many, denounced as a rabble rouser and an agitator, a communist and a radical. He was even attacked by his own people, by those who felt he was going too fast or those who felt he was going too slow; by those who felt he shouldn’t meddle in issues like the Vietnam War or the rights of union workers. We know from his own testimony the doubts and the pain this caused him, and that the controversy that would swirl around his actions would last until the fateful day he died…. Let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination.”
Wow. Replace “Vietnam War” with “Afghan War” and he could have been speaking about himself.
So what would Dr. King say about the state of our union today, 48 years after he first stepped foot on the National Mall? I think the best clues lie in the speech he gave that day: “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment…The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Let’s hope we can weather the storm together.
Kenrya Rankin is a Washington, DC-based journalist and author whose work has appeared in more than a dozen publications including Black Enterprise, Glamour, Reader’s Digest and Redbook.