Agenda or “dream” – what does this monument represent?
by Bryan K. Bullock
With the unveiling of the Martin Luther King memorial approaching, the question on many people’s minds is, which Dr. King will the participants be celebrating? Martin Luther King’s messages have been taken out of context to such an extreme degree, that now even the far Right in America have appropriated his “content of character” line for their own use. Many of the far Right, as well as some on the Left, would not have and did no support most of what King stood and died for. His speeches have been reduced to sound bites, bits and pieces of his profound speeches used to make a point that King himself would not have supported. So which King will be promoted, celebrated and praised at the unveiling? The King who bravely stood alone against the Vietnam War or the King who supposedly only wanted everyone to love each other?
The life and philosophy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King has been perhaps the most misrepresented of any person in U.S. history. The selling of King as a simple “dreamer” who “loved” everyone is out of line with the real Dr. King. The celebration of this remarkable life by sitting around listening to speeches is antithetical to what the real King stood for, symbolically and literally. The unveiling ceremony will no doubt do little to correct this. We revere King’s words only because his words were backed up with action. He was not some mere speech-giver as are the “leaders” of today. He was an activist, a protester, someone who challenged the status quo and who knowingly laid his body and life on the line to do so. He did not “dream”, he acted, pushed, and fought for a society that still does not exist.
In the final days of King’s life, he was staunchly and openly opposed to militarism and the expanding American empire. His speech opposing the Vietnam War is still one of his strongest, most powerful speeches. He was not only against America’s military action in Vietnam, he was also clearly critiquing America’s operations throughout the globe, calling America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and saying that militarism was an extension of racism and hurts the poor. Given that America is still occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Haiti, and bombing Mother Africa in Libya, expanding the new colonization of Africa via Africom, and still threatening Iran and North Korea and supporting the oppression of Palestinians, it is doubtful that King would be celebrating the actions of America today, despite the presence of a black man who sits atop the empire. How many of the people in the audience will connect the unveiling of the King memorial with the idea that King was courageously anti-war? Shouldn’t there be an anti-war rally scheduled, in which everyone at the unveiling will attend? As they stare at the monument in awe, will the audience be inspired to join the Black is Back coalition in protesting America’s Other Wars? Will anyone ask them to? Will they join ANY anti-war protest movement or activity, or start their own? It is questionable as to whether any of the speakers will criticize the various wars of empire that America is currently engaged in – as King himself would be doing? In fact, how many of the speakers will in fact be King-like? Willing to be ostracized and isolated, as King was in his final days, to stand on the principles of anti-militarism and anti-empire? Most, if not all, will probably be mainstream, self-appointed “leaders” and politicians, whose speeches will glorify a partial life, and present the man as an earthly black Christ whom everyone loved and who loved everyone. No doubt, many will try to connect the election of a black president with the fulfillment of King’s agenda. None will probably note that King was against empire no matter what the emperor looked like.
Most people relate King to the civil rights movement and they will say, ad nauseum the word “dream.” Who among the speakers will use words like “agenda”, “plan”, “blueprint?” All of these words necessarily imply and require action. Dream, of course, does not. So, when the monument is shown, who will tell the crowd that King’s plan for African American liberation has, in many ways, been literally, reduced to a dream? The black male incarceration rate, the wealth gap between whites and blacks (and the accompanying black male unemployment rate), the reduction in the net worth of African Americans through massive foreclosures, the unresolved and increasing issue of police brutality against black people, the assault on affirmative action policies (by black people no less), the rise of the surveillance state, indefinite detention, the concentration of wealth, the destruction of the public school system are all issues that King would have wanted Africans in America to rally around and take action against. Will the many speakers and so-called leaders link these issues? Alternatively, will they say innocuous, banal things like, “the dream is unfulfilled?” Will anyone note that Dr. King was assassinated because of his actions and not because of his dreams? Undoubtedly, some of the speakers will say something self-evident like, “there’s more work to be done”, as if this statement is bold and brave, but how many will lead the audience through Washington, straight to the White House and demand an end to ANY the aforementioned issues? How many will chastise, criticize and admonish the President, the Congress, their own majority white governors and state legislators, for not speaking to, let alone addressing, any of these issues?
This man, this leader, has been so thoroughly water-downed and de-fanged, that he bears almost no resemblance to the actual living King. The monument will probably bear greater physical resemblance to him, then will the way his life will be presented. He anticipated that some sort of affirmative action would be needed to allow African Americans to catch up to whites in employment and wealth creation. Who will acknowledge this? And let’s be clear, this water-downed, all loving, Christ- King was created and his words cherry-picked, in order to make him more palatable to white America, to the political establishment and to those blacks who were uncomfortable with his stance on the Vietnam War and his Poor People’s campaign. King was hated, condemned and ostracized by the mainstream media and by black “leaders” at the end of his life – not because he talked a good game of love, but because he fought for a life worth living and because he refused back down and sit down. Lyndon Johnson withdrew the security detail that he assigned to protect King when he would not soften his stance on Vietnam – both men knew what this meant. Who will mention this at the unveiling? Black and white ministers and those whites who simply wanted to help end segregation, left the “movement” when King began addressing issues of poverty and militarism. This King cannot be celebrated. He would be embarrassing to the President, the Congress and the black “leadership” who gather to have their day in the sun. The celebration of this King would lead the ultra-right wing Republicans, and many Democrats to boycott the unveiling celebration.
To memorialize the real King would make many in the audience and on the presentation panel uncomfortable. The celebration of this life, the real life of Dr. Martin Luther King, would give strength and encouragement to poor people to rise up in America as they are doing in other parts of the world. Who will connect the uprisings in Briton, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria to the confrontational protests of the civil rights movement? Will anyone even use the word “racism’ or “oppression” in a current context?
Much will be said about “love” and non-violence (as opposed to non-violent resistance against oppression). Little will be said about the power of resistance in a racist, oppressive system that marginalizes and victimizes black people. Instead of honoring the genius in the strategy, speakers will simply encourage African Americans to be non-violent in the face of police brutality and the mass incarcerations of black men. They will be told to simply “love” their political and social enemies, whose policies and narratives affect them in real, tangible ways, instead of fighting, protesting, voting and marching, against them and their ideas and legislation. By de-fanging King, as well as Malcolm, the Right (and the Left) have commoditized two of African American’s most important leaders, co-opted their justified anger, re-wrote American history and have thereby weakened our movement and castrated any current and future revolution.
The King monument, as do so many symbols, will be seen as substance. It will be presented as a culmination of a movement and a celebration of the past. As such, it will not challenge the wars on nations, nor the wars at home. It will be presented as the closing of a chapter in American history and will not be connected to the unfolding, current story. The monument will not be placed in the context of the monumental failures of capitalism, black leadership, white liberals and political parties to solve the ongoing needs of African Americans and the poor; it will do a monumental disservice to the real King.
Bryan K. Bullock is a lawyer. He was habeas counsel for detainees imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He practices employment discrimination and civil rights law and is a resident of Gary, IN.