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Remembering MLK: The Things We’ve Forgotten Would Guide Us

Color Lines - Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 82 this month, and his assassination occurred nearly 43 years ago. As we get further and further from that time, memories get fuzzy and a kind of collective amnesia sets in, as Vincent Harding has observed, some of it deliberately promoted amnesia. So, the question is how to remember King clearly and to see that amazing moment in history that he participated in through a sharp and focused lens? Three things come to mind.

First of all, King was a radical. Not the venomous kind that promotes reckless violence against innocent people; quite the opposite. King was a radical in his criticism of the root causes of injustice, and in his brilliantly imaginative vision of a different, more just and humane world. For example, King did not just urge protesters to be non-violent, he urged politicians and governments to be non-violent. In 1968 he took a brave stance against the war in Vietnam, in a speech in New York City’s Riverside Church, that cost him some of his liberal supporters. He criticized the injustices of capitalism: persistent poverty, inadequate aid to workers and the poor, and growing wealth disparity. Let us remember he died demanding not simply integration, but labor rights for striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

Secondly, King was not a king. He was not a superhero who rushed in to singularly rescue black people from the evils of American racism. He acted in concert with others, many others, some of them with longer careers in social justice struggles than himself. There is a famous analogy in King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, one he used many times, in which he compares his work to that of a pilot guiding a plane. The pilot is important, King concedes. However, that safe journey could not be achieved without the sometimes invisible work of a very skilled and committed ground crew. I might chose a slightly different analogy, but the point is an important one. As Ella Baker was fond of saying, “King didn’t make the movement, the movement made King.” Read more.

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