Friday, April 04, 2008

The Unfinished Revolution: The Murder of Dr. King, 40 Years Later

“MLK dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in... What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
- Robert F. Kennedy, April 4, 1968, Indianapolis, Indiana

Today is a heavy day. 40 years ago, an assassins bullet ended the life of one of the greatest advocates of peace and justice on the planet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a horrible moment in our nation's long and shameful history of racial injustice. It was a blow to the global movement for human rights.

At the end of his life, Dr. King was organizing what many now call his "last crusade," the Poor People's Movement, an interracial movement of the poor that would descend on Washington, D.C., to demand legislative action on a "Economic Bill of Rights" for the poor, modeled on the highly successful post-WWII G.I. Bill. Dr. King had become an eloquent and outspoken visionary who condemned the "giant triplets" of militarism, materialism and racism. These were not separate injustices to be challenged and fought apart from each other, in his view, but an interwoven garment of injustice. They were part and parcel of one system of oppression and human degradation. To overcome one, he said, we must confront and overcome them all. This is King's radically democratic vision of the United States and the world. This is Dr. King's unfinished revolution...

Today, if King were here, he'd look out on a nation of severely mixed results. While greater educational, employment, political and social opportunities are available for some, a nauseating list of inequalities and injustices persist:

• Just shy of 1 million black people are incarcerated in the U.S., more than 7x as many than in 1970.
• In Omaha, Nebraska, 59% of all black children live in poverty, a pattern repeated in big city after big city
• The Delta still reels in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina three years later as the nation has long ago moved on to other things
• Income disparity in the United States has dramatically widened since 1968
• The U.S. public education system is resegregating at an alarming rate
• American social policy has become callous to those who struggle while further lining the pockets of the already super-rich
• Americans still live in hyper-segregated ways throughout the land
• A perpetual state of war has been declared by those in power
• International human rights treaties have been eviscerated and civil liberties at home have been assaulted
• Environmental chaos is accelerating in the face of humanity's voracious appetite for material things
• A hateful and often racist anti-immigrant rhetoric pervades our social discourse
• A series of divisive anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives spread their wings to five more states this year, including here in Nebraska, with the aim of rolling back rational mechanisms to help our communities ensure fairness and equal opportunity for all citizens.

And I could go on and on and on... We are a society more concerned with our next gadget than our next door neighbor. We are taught early on that radical individualism trumps a radical spirit of community and compassion, that anything goes in the pursuit of our own selfish interests and an always expanding pile of material things. We are a nation whose leaders thrill to the opportunity to unleash thousands of tons of hellish weaponry on innocent civilians a half of world away. We demonize the "other," instead of seeking grace and communion in our common humanity. For too many of us, it is our way or no other. We tend to be arrogant and hypocritical, shallow and soulless.

And so, the struggle continues...

The Root has a number of good articles and multi-media presentations in honor of this anniversary.

Here is an interesting interactive map on MLK's assassination, including interviews with a number of people who were with King that fateful evening.

Please take a little time to watch Taylor Branch, one of the great chroniclers of "America in the King Years," deliver a spectacular speech at the National Cathedral on King's legacy 40 years later. The National Cathedral is the place where King gave his last Sunday sermon before his death.

Here is what Robert Kennedy had to say about Dr. King's death the day after King's assassination while in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Of course, later that year, RFK would meet the same ending as Dr. King, punctuating a wrenching several months of lost hope and opportunity for our nation, a decisive turning-point away from the promise of the Great Society, the War on Poverty and the civil rights movement and ushering in a new era of conservative reaction and white backlash that persists to this day.

Or, here are RFK's amazing remarks in Indianapolis the evening of King's assassination. Afterward, Indianapolis was one of the few American cities that did not burn. Please look and listen:

While Dr. King is no longer with us, the ideas and values he embraced, advocated and symbolized are still very much alive... though largely unfulfilled.

And so, today is not only a day for tears and sorrow (and maybe some rage), but, if we are to truly honor Dr. King, today more than any other day, is a day for us, as ordinary people, to "wake up," as King used to say, to stand up, to reach out and to rededicate ourselves to that most noble struggle for small d democracy and human rights. Yes, this is a radical vision and a radical movement, meaning it requires a series of fundamental - root - changes in ourselves, in our society and our world. But, this is the only way. Again, as Dr. King put it, only through a "radical reorientation of our basic values" will this unfinished revolution finally come to fruition.

So, I ask you, out there in your privgate world of the blogosphere, What will you do to help finish the unfulfilled revolution? What are you willing to put on the line for a more humane and democratic society and world? How do you plan to go beyond words to deeds? How will you be a part of this ongoing movement for justice? Which side are you on?

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