“Or Does It Explode?”

As I’m sure most of you are aware, today marks the fiftieth anniversary since the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had been since 18 March assisting the sanitation workers striking for better pay and working conditions. King, whom I consider — for whatever it’s worth — the greatest American and a personal hero, was thirty-nine years old. Before I write anything more or before you read any further, revisiting the speech given by King on 03 April 1968, unknowingly his last, is imperative. I listen to this speech several times each year, and have yet to get through it without full body chills when King says:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

One can’t help but allow the thought to flicker: was it unknowingly his last speech? Was it a merely rhetorical tactic to suggest that he may not get there with his audience? Or did he just somehow intuit that his thread would soon be cut?

In the public schools I attended in Rockford, Illinois in the United States, from Kindergarten through AP U.S. History, Dr. King was presented to me and my (mostly white) classmates firstly and foremostly as the bearer of a dream, a civil rights icon in direct lineage from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. DuBois to Rosa Parks and beyond to Barack Obama — a man of unimpeachable character who (as far as we were taught for the most part) had always been celebrated and revered by right-thinking Americans, whose 1963 speech on the National Mall competed with the “Gettysburg Address” and Washington’s First Inaugural as the single greatest example of American oratory. Even at the AP level in high school (keep in mind that for me that was in 2001-02; 11 September occurred in the third week of that school year, followed by the swelling bellicosity and need to lash out that undergirded the descent into the twin morasses of Afghanistan and Iraq, from which we have yet to emerge — it was a unique time to be studying American history), Dr. King was presented as an almost beatific figure, sanitized to a noncontroversial American Hero™. I get the impression that it is this version of King — the Dreamer — that most of my peers learned to venerate through their secondary education.

But, as outstanding a work of oratory as “I Have a Dream” is, Dr. King’s story does not end with the March on Washington. I admire King to the extent that I do, because he lived what he preached; he adhered to nonviolence even when his erstwhile allies on the left castigated him for it in opposition to the war in Vietnam and the crescendoing breakdown of civil order as the 1960s progressed. John and Robert Kennedy thought him a nuisance at best; J. Edgar Hoover loathed him; LBJ tired of him quickly once he made his vocal opposition to Vietnam clear and uncompromising, despite LBJ’s signing of the Civil Rights Act and Great Society programs that directly addressed urban decay, poverty and inequality of opportunity. On his right, he was practically Satan incarnate. An oft-quoted remark of King’s is “The time is always right to do the right thing,” which stripped of context makes a perfectly anodyne entry in any collection of “inspirational quotations” or “best American quotes of the last hundred years,” et al. But King lived itHe was the context — his words, certainly, but his very body as well. One can easily imagine Dr. King repeating the words of his namesake, who according to legend (the quote is almost certainly apocryphal), when commanded to recant at the 1521 Diet of Worms, said “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

It is indeed convenient to stop the narrative in 1963, and not confront the fullness of King’s evolving vision. For racism was not to be considered in a vacuum. King enumerated two other evils which, with racism, constituted the shame of America — poverty and war. The above speech from Memphis summarizes well his views of the insidious manner in which racism and poverty mutually reinforce each other, and the speech that very possibly signed his death warrant, in which he announced his opposition to war in all forms, and in Vietnam in particular tarnished the golden door (I would add xenophobia, intimately connected to the three):

Dr. King would be eighty-nine were he alive today. Any speculation on how American history would have been different had he been a voice crying out in the wilderness is just that — pure speculation. But I cannot help but think that what America needs today is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of 1968. The radical, unafraid and secure in his belief of the righteousness of his cause. Contrast the convictions of King to the corrupt, racist coward doing his damndest to undo King’s legacy and that which it did achieve. Even at eighty-nine, I have little doubt that King would be a voice against neoimperialism, elites’ kowtowing to money and influence, the dark persistence of racism and rumblings of fascism (see Charlottesville, Va.), jingoism, sexism, the for-profit prison-industrial complex, police brutality and militarism at all levels of authority. I do not doubt that King would have protested against Iraq, supported #MeToo and the #MarchForOurLives, held even Obama to live the messy reality that the eloquence of his words belied, and summoned the righteous ire of a nation that witnessed the overtly racist and classist responses to Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Maria — the devastation from the last of which left Puerto Rico, neither independent nor fully considered American, shattered and lacking electricity, food, potable water and adequate medical care.

No person is perfect, and I am not naïve enough to believe that had King lived longer, perhaps until 2018, that the original sin of America would have been redeemed. I am, however, still quixotically hopeful that in remembering the man in full, as one unafraid to speak truth to power, and learning from him, can we cease this madness. We may wander in the wilderness for who knows how many more years, but let Liberty be crowned with no false patriotic wreath, opportunity real, life free, and equality in the air we breathe (paraphrased from Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again”).

~ by Benji on April 4, 2018.

One Response to ““Or Does It Explode?””

  1. Reblogged this on Petchary's Blog and commented:
    On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, much has been written and spoken. I am sharing with you the words of my Twitter friend – a young American man. Because I do not share his background, I think it is interesting to have his perspective on a man who was/is his personal hero. There was certainly much more to “MLK” than “I Have a Dream.” Some of it was not palatable at all to many sections of American society at the time. But we have to see him as a whole man – not just parts of him that are convenient. As Dr. King looked into the future, he said “I don’t mind.” He was already looking beyond his own life. I wonder what he would think of today’s nightmare Trumpworld, climate change, refugees… I would love to hear him speak on such matters. Rest peacefully in the arms of the Universe, Dr. King!


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