Martin Luther King Day: The gulf between promise and fulfillment

[For more on Martin Luther King, click HERE.]

By Billy Wharton

January 16, 2012 -- Socialist Webzine, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- More than 40 years since the death of Martin Luther King Jr., his significance remains an uneasy battleground between those wishing to sanitise his legacy and those seeking to draw inspiration from his radical deeds and words.

The sanitisers have mustered a vast array of resources – endless MLK commercials from McDonald’s, official Martin Luther King Day holiday celebrations that preach passivity (as opposed to the non-violent civil disobedience that King supported) and all sorts of mainstream media framing of this “man of peace”. On the side of the activists are King’s own words, the acts he took and inspired, and the array of social problems in the present that look a lot like the ones he described in his 1960s sermons.

Take for instance a slightly lesser recognised sermon such as “Remaining awake during a great revolution” that was delivered on March 31, 1968, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. No, “I have a dream” here, so this one has not ended up as a clip in a commercial or as a promotion for a multinational corporation. Here, it is the poor against the rich, set in the brilliant Biblically inspired oratory of King. And the message is not in favour of this or that piece of legislation. King presents a global view of the interconnectedness of people and the need for leaders to wake up to the reality of the consequences of things like poverty and war.

The hook is a retelling of the old story of Rip Van Winkle. Old Rip manages to sleep through the entire American Revolution and awakens to discover that a President has replaced a British king. So too, King explained to a his elite audience, were many political leaders sleeping through the revolution in communication and transportation that was bringing people all over the world together. For King this was an opportunity, a first opportunity, for poor people to speak to the common experience of their own poverty in order to change it. King gives several examples of this including the gut-wrenching reality of mass homelessness that he had observed in India. He described a new “geographical oneness” that might finally allow for a global movement for justice.

Of course, not everyone was asleep at the technological wheel. The group we now know as the 1% was drawing a different conclusion from the same lesson on geographical oneness. They would go on to use it as a platform not for a new planetary consciousness of solidarity and peaceful coexistence, but as a means to construct capitalist globalisation. What was an opportunity to begin a conversation about ending the scourge of poverty was transformed into a deepening of the global misery through globalisation.

Yet, King also knew where the antidote to this problem lies. The key was that just as there was a revolution in technology there was also a human rights revolution underway. Here he offers two important lessons – one delivered consciously and other offered only by putting this speech onto the context of history.

In this sermon, King wrestles with the notion of time or, more specifically, the advice given by mainstream voices that “only time can solve the problem of racial injustice”. He refutes this by arguing forcefully that there is no automatic march of history – “time”, he says, “is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively”. Here the basic lesson offered is that history has to be created by the conscious actions of those who wish to change conditions in the present – to end racism, eradicate poverty and extend democracy. The only guarantee that King proposes is the certainty that what he describes as “the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation”, will constantly be working to influence the future in order to maintain the oppressive relations that have enriched them.

Equally important is the timing of the sermon. It was delivered some four years after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. This cuts against the manufactured conception of King as only a civil rights leader. At this time he was still speaking about racism as “a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans”. He is still discussing the tragedy of poverty and was attempting to organise an occupation of Washington in order to highlight the needs of people in inner city and rural USA. And he was displaying the moral courage to take a public stand against the US war of aggression in Vietnam, even when that stand alienated him from sections of what was becoming the civil rights establishment and their white liberal benefactors.

All this is to say that at no point in his short life was Martin Luther King Jr. settled. At no point was he satisfied with his accomplishments. To remember him as only or even primarily as a leader of the civil rights movement is to purposely forget King as a moral voice against all of the injustices of the system. Where he found poverty he spoke out. When he discovered racial hatred he wrote about it. And when he identified people in motion struggling against these evils, as he did during the strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, he supported them, providing them with a national canvas upon which to paint their message. A simple song from civil rights movement captures King precisely – “99 1/2 % free won’t do”. No McDonalds commercial can erase this legacy.

As we encounter another Martin Luther King holiday we might take a bit of advice from him. Keep our eyes focused forward – working now to create the future we want to see in the future. History is on our side in this struggle to free the 99%. The only thing we can count on is that "nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion”. Complacency is the enemy in our attempt to finally bridge the gap between promise and fulfillment. Occupy MLK Day!

[Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. He can be reached at whartonbilly [at] gmail [dot] com.]