Thoughts from MLK Day

January 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Having attended a community MLK Day celebration and listened to several radio programs today, I’m more convinced than ever that we’re missing the point about the meaning of Dr. King.

One student, to his credit, spoke of Dr. King’s opposition to discrimination and linked that to what he saw as injustice in our present day health care system. No one should be discriminated against – and everyone has a right to access health care. Right on! This young man got the point. But, sadly, he’s the only young person I heard today who spoke of justice or attempted to connect Dr. King’s legacy to current day justice issues. I heard several other middle and high school students say things like, “No one wanted to resist Jim Crow until Dr. King gave them inspiration,” or “He opened the doors for hope and then people walked through.”

Not quite. Not to diminsh Dr. King’s legacy, but he was not the sole source of inspiration or resistance for black people, who had a firmly established tradition for resistance generations. And, even during the movement, there was considerable inspiration and resistance from the ground up, to which the visible leaders like Dr. King, had to catch up.

One student compared a beloved teacher to Dr. King based apparently on the teacher’s willingness to give of himself for the benefit of his students. Nothing wrong with giving selflessly for the benefit of individual students, but that’s not even close to the meaning of Dr. King.

I know it’s hard to tell the story of a group or a movement, rather than an individual. Seems we’ve done a terrible job of it with the Civil Rights Movement. As the movement generation ages, it seems more and more urgent that the story be told and re-told as the story of a generation (really several generations moving together and working in creative tension with one another). Let’s keep the history of MOVEMENT in the story of the Civil Rights Movement!

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  • Gibran says:

    Thanks for the reminder Cynthia, I’ve learned that SNCC is having a 65th anniversary reunion in NC this April 15, and the US Social Forum is catching momentum for Detroit in June. Seems to me like a two potent generational points in the arc of a movement with a story that needs to be told.

  • Curtis says:

    Thank you, Cynthia! Your comments are so timely. I couldn’t agree more. We do a disservice to ourselves when we make the good Reverend Dr., as important a figure as he was, larger than life or our collective efforts. I am always struck by how few people know the story of places like Highlander and the freedom schools. Indeed coming out of a meeting yesterday with environmental activists from around the region who have been working on climate change, environmental justice, corporate accountability for YEARS, you see how the soil is and has been tirelessly prepared for someone iconic to help provide a tipping point. But if the ground is not fertile, those plants don’t take root.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Exactly. Not only do the plants fail to take root if the soil is not prepared, the plants won’t grow unless people weed, water and tend to them after the planting. While Dr. King provided inspiration, no doubt, the hundreds and thousands of organizers and every day people who did the work in the wake of the “iconic leader” are what made the movement and its successes possible.

    Gibran’s comment has me wondering if I can crash the party on April 15!! Would love to be part of the conversation!

  • Gibran says:

    I just write with a quick thought on our conversation around Dr. King. One could see a contrast between my post calling him a “prophet” and our remembering that he alone was not the movement. My thought is that there is complexity here. We live in a culture that glorifies individuals and so it makes sense for dissonant voices to rise and remind us all that a movement is not an individual. At the same time, I would not want our need to clarify this point to then take us away from acknowledging the mighty power of the prophetic voice, and the very special role of a human being whose state itself serves to help others become free. This awareness allows us to both be part of the collective and to pay special attention to the attainment of our own individual freedom.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    I’m with you. I don’t intend to minimize the power of Dr. King as a prophetic voice. I agree that he was remarkable and that he made a very particular contribution to the Movement and the cause of justice. He was an extraordinary man, who was uniquely endowed to step powerfully into a gap. I believe that movements often need prophets like Dr. King, and often fail to gain their full measure of power without them. And, often prophets, by the very nature of their role, work alone, drawing people forward but not necessarily doing the organizing work themselves. Really, my interest is in making sure two things don’t happen. (1) I want us to resist the temptation to diminish the power of Dr. King’s radical resistance to the status quo of his day–the way that happens when people only think of the “I have a dream” speech and forget his growing opposition to the Vietnam War or the Poor People’s Campaign he was working on at his death. (2) And this is what I was saying in the post, I want us to resist equating the man with the movement. For me, it’s definitely a “both/and” not an “either/or” kind of thing. Peace!

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