The planned (and now, postponed) dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr monument in DC presents another opportunity to reflect on the continued deterioration of the American social fabric which, as I suggested in an earlier post, may soon be ripped asunder.
In a recent commentary by Cornel West of Princeton, the prophetic words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel resonated with me: "The whole future of America depends on the impact and influence of Dr. King." These words were spoken while Dr. King was alive. In the 43 years since his assassination, the future of America has grown considerably darker, and its trajectory may very well be linked to a waning of Dr. King's impact and influence. Professor West writes:
"King weeps from his grave. He never confused substance with symbolism. He never conflated a flesh and blood sacrifice with a stone and mortar edifice. We rightly celebrate his substance and sacrifice because he loved us all so deeply. Let us not remain satisfied with symbolism because we too often fear the challenge he embraced."
And, as I've written in previous posts, President Obama embraced the symbolism of Dr. King mainly because it was expedient and highly effective. Others remain satisfied with mere symbolism because it is difficult to do otherwise, as it is also profitable and comfortable. As I've also written recently, and affirmed by West in his piece, the age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling Dr. King's legacy,
"Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housiing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable."
Professor West goes on to say,
"The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts' stimulating growth. This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King's catastrophes (militarism, racism and poverty); its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans."
The catastrophes enumerated by West are consistent with the "triple evils" that King himself identified -- poverty, injustice and war. West suggests that King's response to this crisis would be found in one word -- revolution. As I have said in my own earlier posts, Dr. King would take to the streets in opposition to the policies of Bush, and now, those of Obama. West affirms this and says,
"A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens."
This is unlikely, of course, because it is so damned difficult, and because the right-wing has so thoroughly occupied the high ground on the battle field. Unlikely, too, because the singular transformational figure of our time, Barack Obama, has shown himself to be a manchurian candidate for the monied class -- he has corrupted the language and oratory and symbolism of Dr. King in the service of his own political agenda. Unlikely, too, because it appears the future of America is plummeting with the falling trajectory of Dr. King's impact and influence.
The best legacy to Martin Luther King Jr is to be found in right action, and not in stone monuments.
This sentiment is affirmed in the comments of Michael Eric Dyson, in which he described how Dr. King employed what Dyson calls his "automortality" -- the narration of his own death. Dyson says that King ingeniously used the inevitability of his own death to motivate and mobilize his community, to use that certain death to win converts into his army of moral opposition to America's failure to be truly democratic. Dyson quotes from a King sermon, in which he says that he does not want to be remembered for a Nobel Peace Prize, but rather that he was on the right side of peace, on the right side of the war. Dyson says that King anticipated his death in order that others would,
"look at its inevitability, transform its perception and alter and shape how people should view his life once he was there longer here."
So, even as King acknowledged that he "might not get to the promised land", he did nevertheless have a clear idea about how he should be remembered, based on the principles for which he stood.
And today, with the monument to him now unveiled, many people are finding it an appropriate time to consider him again. And many people are writing about it. Congressman John Lewis did so in the Washington Post on Saturday. He said that if Dr. King were alive today he would be amazed that such a monument was erected for him, as he would be gratified that an african-American was elected as president. Lewis also agreed that Dr. King would say that much more needs to be done, saying,
"His dream was about building a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and worth of every human being. That effort is the true legacy of King's dream. Were he alive today, it is telling that his message would still be essentially the same. It is troubling that unemployment is so high -- indeed, far higher than it was in 1963 -- and that we are so caught up in details of deficits and debt ceilings that we question whether government has any moral duty to serve the poor, help feed the hungry and assist the sick. Today, Dr. King would still be asking questions that reveal the moral meaning of our policies. And he would still challenge our leaders to answer those questions -- and to act on their beliefs."