Friday, August 26, 2011

His unfulfilled legacy

On the day the Martin Luther King National Memorial opened to the public, an unprecedented earthquake shook Washington D.C. If that were not enough, as we speak, Hurricane Irene is descending upon the East Coast, postponing the monument's official unveiling indefinitely. It seems the struggles that Martin Luther King endured during his short life have not eluded him in death.

Like the man it commemorates, the memorial has its detractors. The biggest gripe seems to be the choice of artist to conceive and realize the monument. Finding an explanation for why an American artist wasn't chosen to portray a great American hero isn't so difficult. The fact is, unless they specialize in kitsch, American artists don't do monumental very well anymore. We can make monumental pieces about trivial subjects, or understated works centered on larger than life themes. We're terrific with irony, but we haven't a clue these days on how to make a serious, monumental piece about a genuine hero. Perhaps it's simply because we don't believe in ourselves anymore.

When you need a monument to a larger than life figure, where better to go than China? Enter Lei Yixin, who cut his teeth creating massive likenesses of Mao Zedong in stone. To Lei's credit, with the exception of its impressive size, this memorial is no Chairman Martin. Lei's Dr. King stands defiant, yet contemplative, not as a demigod, but as a man who appears to have the weight of the world, or at least his people, upon his shoulders. I haven't seen it in person but from photographs the new monument seems to get the idea of the man and appears to be a powerful tribute.

Still it is not without bitter irony that the man who devoted his life to justice and economic equality for African American people, should have his memorial outsourced to China.

Regardless, the new monument brings Dr. King back into the public imagination where he belongs.

National tragedies normally have a way of bringing the public together. Not so with Martin Luther King's assassination, which ripped this country apart limb from limb. I don't think it is unreasonable to say that when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, with him all hope of racial harmony and equality in this country, at least during my lifetime, was lost.

As I became re-acquainted last week with the "I Have a Dream" speech, one line particularly spoke out to me. Dr. King said early in the speech:

"One hundred years later...", (after the Emancipation Proclamation), "...the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land."

Perhaps for the first time in my life I put myself in the shoes of the people in the African American community who rioted in cities all over the country after King's murder. No longer do I feel that the violence, regrettable as it was, was not justified. With the image of people exiled in their own land in mind, I could understand why folks threw up their hands believing that this country had nothing left to offer. Martin Luther King preached non-violence in order to bring about justice for his people, and where did it get him? Dr. King did nothing more than confirm the rights guaranteed in our constitution. The only difference was he added the "for all" part that American children recite in school every day, preceded by the words liberty and justice. For that he went to jail in Birmingham. For that bricks were thrown at him in Chicago. For that he was killed in Memphis.

As a result, instead of an outpouring of love and sympathy, hearts were hardened all over America after April 4th, 1968.

On that terrible evening and in the days to follow, fires fueled by suffering, frustration, desperation and rage lit up the nighttime skies in cities all over America. Perhaps the more militant leaders of the black community were right, if there was ever going to be justice in this country, Dr. King's pacifist tactics would not work. All hope that the struggle for freedom and justice could be fought without violence, was over. The new leaders of the movement would no longer feel compelled to work with or appease white people. Why bother? Who could blame them?

For their part, white folks were scared. They saw the violence of those nights as the signal to leave town. Cities were hemorrhaging white people for years but this was the final straw. The whites who respected and heeded Dr. King's message while he was alive, and there were more of them that you'd imagine, would follow the lead of those that didn't, off to the suburbs and beyond.

The racial divide that Dr. King tried to close, was blown wide open, and has remained that way ever since.

But the greatest tragedy of Dr. King's death in my opinion, was the loss of hope and faith, the loss of the Dream.

It's our faith that teaches us to treat others as we would be treated. Hope for the future makes children understand that in order to make something of themselves they have to respect education and stay in school. Dr. King's Dream encouraged us to accept the fact that in order to build a better tomorrow, we need to sacrifice today.

Martin Luther King's death, the other assassinations of the era, the Vietnam War, Watergate, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the current economic morass, have worn us down in ways we can't even comprehend. One thing is certain, they have filled us with doubt about ourselves and our institutions and have turned us into cynics.

Oscar Wilde told us that "a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Since dreams, hope and faith are not commodities we can put a price tag on, they have little value for us in today's society. That is, until they're gone.

I alluded above to the notion that we don't believe much in ourselves anymore. In fact, many of our brothers and sisters unfortunately believe in nothing at all. The recent riots in England clearly illustrate this, young kids not much older than my ten year old son, in the streets, breaking windows, setting fires and looting, for no apparent reason other than boredom. This doesn't portend well for our future.

If anything good comes of the Martin Luther King Memorial maybe it will be this, perhaps the attention it will receive will spread this message around the world:

Don't be afraid to dream.

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