Please read this if you feel you can’t be bothered
This is the time of year – especially here in North Carolina – during which Martin Luther King, Jr. and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement are both much on the minds of progressives. With the recent celebration of the King Day holiday, this Thursday’s anniversary of the founding of the NAACP and this Saturday’s Moral March on Raleigh, there is a heightened awareness of a connection between the pioneers of the mid-20th Century and today’s ongoing effort to combat inequality and injustice.
That said, there is also good reason to bristle at the endless efforts by corporations and conservative politicians to appropriate and sanitize King’s words and deeds.
Distorting the message and the lessons
You know how this sanitizing process goes: Cue the soaring music and a company logo as an excerpt from the “I have a dream” speech conclusion starts revving up in a 30 second TV spot. These days, it’s gotten to the point where even conservative politicians like Gov. Pat McCrory can quote safe King speech excerpts from a distance and no one even blinks an eye.
Last week, as part of a Black History Month proclamation, McCrory even acknowledged the founding of SNCC – the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – at Shaw University in 1960. Somewhere, Ella Baker – the fierce and fearless feminist and human rights crusader whom McCrory, no doubt unwittingly, mentioned in his statement – is surely rolling her eyes.
Of course, in many ways, it’s not surprising that folks on the Right would like to engage in a little historical tidying up when it comes to the Civil Rights era and people like King. After all, when one gets beyond the safe parts of the “I have a dream” speech and maybe the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one quickly runs into speeches and sermons in which King said things that you can be sure corporate America and conservative politicians will not be repeating or inserting into TV ads anytime soon.
This is from King’s controversial 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” sermon at New York’s Riverside Church:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
At a 1965 speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King described America’s persistent economic inequality and poverty (both for blacks and whites) as essentially the same as the vicious racial discrimination against which he had been battling.
All of this is worth remembering this week for at least a couple of reasons:
First is to acknowledge the progress we have made. Three decades ago Jesse Helms was demonizing King in one of the more disgraceful performances in recent U.S. Senate history. Today, state Republican leaders quote King. That’s something even if it is sanitized.
But second and more important is to remind ourselves once more that we often look at some of the past Civil Rights struggles through rose-colored glasses.
We remember the heroic moments, the new laws passed and the hateful figures who were overcome, but the hard truth of the matter is that the fight back in those days was frequently tough, miserable and controversial work. Advocates for peace and justice were disparaged as traitors and communists and worse.
Meanwhile, truth be told, some of the leaders of the movement were occasionally a little rough around the edges. They were also often disorganized, confused and unsure of where they were going or how to get there. There were countless incidents of internal dissent, discord and mistakes; of clashing egos and of defeats and half-victories. King, himself, was trying to launch the largely unsuccessful “Poor People’s Campaign” when he was killed. Heck, he was only 39 years old. Nine months later, Nixon was in the White House.
The important lesson for today
And yet, for all of the mistakes, setbacks and imperfections, try to imagine how much worse off our world would be today if those people – the Civil Rights activists, “women’s lib” protesters the people of the Stonewall uprising — had not struggled and argued and marched and erred and, in the end, refused to give up. Imperfect as they were, their achievements were truly great – even world-altering.
What’s all this got to do with you and me? Just this: We live in a time right now that features many striking parallels to the mid-20th Century. We too live in an era in which there is a desperate need for dissent and reform; for protest and an end to injustice.
And, as in past times, our movement for pulling off such an incredible feat is frequently disorganized and messy and frustrating. Some of our leaders are great, some drive us crazy and most are somewhere in between. Often, success seems far off.
And here’s one other thing that hasn’t changed – especially here in North Carolina where we’re lucky enough to have the Forward Together/HK on J movement: It is one of the best things happening in our political world right now and without question one of the best hopes our democracy has for beginning to pull itself out of the absurd, self-inflicted cycle of greed, inequality and exclusion through which it is passing.
Isn’t it obvious therefore what a mistake it would be for any North Carolinian within earshot who fancies him or herself a subscriber to this cause not to be there Saturday morning when the 2015 HK on J Moral March takes over the streets of the Capital City?
As the event website reports:
On February 14, 2015, we will gather at 9:00 a.m. in downtown Raleigh (at the corner of South and Wilmington Streets next to Shaw University). The march will begin at 10:00 a.m. after which we will begin the mass people’s assembly on the doorstep of the State Capitol.
For the past nine years, a fusion movement has been growing in North Carolina. In 2006, the Historic Thousands on Jones St. (HKonJ) People’s Assembly Coalition was formed under the leadership of Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II and the North Carolina NAACP. It has grown to include over 150 coalition partners. Each year this fusion movement comes together on the second Saturday in February to hold a mass people’s assembly to reaffirm its commitment to the 14 Point People’s Agenda and to hold lawmakers accountable to the people of North Carolina….
If you believe that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, if you understand that what happens in North Carolina has implications for the future of the nation, if you believe that we can build a moral movement together to save the soul of our state and country, then join us as we tell Governor McCrory and the North Carolina General Assembly, “Forward Together, Not One Step Back!” We are calling on all people of conscience and concern to join us as we stand against the extreme and regressive agenda being pushed in North Carolina. This agenda is a reflection of what is happening across the United States.
Will this week’s march solve any of the major problems confronting North Carolina right now? No, of course not. But the same was also true of countless other events that King and the other great civil rights leaders of the last century led. The effect was and always is cumulative and over time.
Moreover, today, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who participated in those struggles who regrets having done so. I am certain that if you join us on Saturday you’ll feel exactly the same way afterwards. Hope to see you there!