(Following is an article I wrote on January 2007 in tribute to MLK but also as a collective self-evaluation for us.)
Sorry for waking you up every year to celebrate your birthday, despite the fact that you would not be welcomed at some of the celebrations on your behalf. After all, your fiery and provocative rhetoric concerning the economic condition of your people is not what the sponsors of those celebrations want in return for their support.
No, they don’t want to hear you call for a redistribution of wealth in this country, higher wages, equity in public sector contracting, and certainly not a word on stopping this ridiculous war in Iraq. As I recall, you spoke against the Viet Nam War exactly one year prior to being assassinated. Oh yes, in your final speech you also told your audience to boycott various products in response to unfair treatment in the marketplace. No, Martin, it would have been a waste of your time to have made the rounds to those Kumbaya hand-holding celebrations of your life.
Many of the folks that attended MLK events, as they have for years, were only interested in “keeping the dream alive.” They are not concerned with carrying on the work you started and moving it to the next level; they merely want to revisit what you did and what you said, mourn your loss, and then go home and wait for next year’s MLK Day.
Despite your being an action-oriented leader, many of our so-called leaders today are content to just talk the talk. And you know what, Dr. King; every year it seems the number of folks who “marched” with you increases. Too bad most of those same folks didn’t go to jail with you.
Yes, there were lots of celebrations on your birthday, but most of them did nothing to make our dream a reality; their objective was to merely keep your dream “alive.” I guess as long as we keep the dream alive we don’t have to do any work, make any sacrifices, take any risks, make any waves, or disturb the status quo, right? But wasn’t that just the opposite of what you did?
Before I forget, let me tell about the celebration I attended in Philadelphia, put on by the African American Heritage Coalition. No, it wasn’t one of those hand-holding hymn-singing affairs; it was a serious event put on by some serious dedicated sisters and brothers, all in your name but also in remembrance of the question you posed in 1967, “Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community?” And guess who was there. Remember Dr. Walter Lomax, the brother who attended to you that time you got sick on the road? He still has that newspaper photo of the two of you. When he showed it to me a few years ago, I kidded him by saying, “You saved Dr. King’s life!”
I had the honor of being the keynote speaker for the event in Philly; it felt so good to be among brothers and sisters who were committed to taking the action steps necessary to move our people beyond your dream and into the reality of Black empowerment. I used your question, but I changed it just a little; I hope you don’t mind. I asked, “Where do we go from here? Complacency or consciousness? I wanted to know if they would continue status quo or finally do something about our condition.
I told them that naming streets after you is great, but let’s not stop there, especially if Black people don’t own anything on those streets. Besides, I know you didn’t do what you did to get your name on street signs; rather, you did it so we could get our names on things like deeds, businesses, development contracts, and other assets. You would be appalled to know that most of those streets named in your honor are not even safe for our children to walk and play. I know that hurts you, but I thought you should know.
Of course, I left some challenges in the City of Brotherly Love. I gave the audience a list of things they could do the very next day to start down the road to economic empowerment. That’s what you were telling the people that night in Memphis before you were killed wasn’t it? Forty years later and I have to give the same message. That’s wild! Do you think we will ever get it, Dr. King? And if we “get” it, do you think we will ever act upon the economic empowerment message? I sure hope so.
Anyway, as I said, the event I attended was just the right kind for me. I’m not in to the traditional celebrations where we get together simply out of obligation and just for show. I figure if we cannot come together on your birthday for more than recanting the “I Have a Dream” speech, we should stay at home. I mentioned to my audience in Philly that I could not picture Dr. King, if you were still alive, going somewhere every year and reciting that same speech for forty years.
I was encouraged in Philadelphia, and I want you to be encouraged too. There are some folks there who are seriously moving in the right direction for our people. I think you would be proud to know them.
But you go back to sleep now, and continue “your” dream. You may be disturbed again on April 4th, but that won’t last long either, so don’t worry about it. Please get a lot of rest before that date next year though, because it will be the 40th anniversary of your assassination. You’re really going to get a workout then. Give Sister Coretta a big hug for us; and we’ll see you again next year, Dr. King.