Southern Struggle

The struggle over the true legacy of Martin King

The spirit of those days of courage and danger, community and cause known as the Civil Rights Movement are upon us again. A whole series of reenactments, anniversary events and memorials all kicked off in 2005, the 50th anniversary of the arrest and jailing of Rosa Parks, the resulting boycott and the rise of the most majestic figure of the 20th century, Martin Luther King.

Last year there was the marking of 50 years since the sit-ins protested the ban on blacks in public places. This year is the 50th anniversary of the heroic and sometimes deadly Freedom Rides throughout the segregated South. And so it will go through the rest of the decade.

Man wearing MLK T-Shirt
© Boyd Lewis

On Aug.28, 2011, the anniversary comes round of the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Dr. King at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Forty eight years before, he spoke of his dream for racial harmony and urged people to hew from a Mountain of Despair a Stone of Hope, the hope of a better time to come.

The week-long celebration of the Dream of Dr. King ends with the dedication of the statue and wall memorial in Washington, D.C. to Atlanta’s hometown hero and light of peace and justice to the world, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Between 250,000 and 400,000 people are expected to attend the official dedication the final Sunday in August.

It will be the first statue of an African American ever placed on the National Mall, the lush green parkland and pool between the U.S. Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial.

Dr. King’s statue is 30 feet 8 inches tall (nine feet taller than Thomas Jefferson’s) and emerges from a granite wall, looking a little like Han Solo frozen in a block of carbonite in “Star Wars”  with his features emerging from a polished inanimate slab.

The statue on the National Mall was sculpted in China by sculptor Lei Yixin, a Party-favored artist whose previous monumental work was that of Chairman Mao.

Although granite is a major resource in Dr. King’s native Georgia (Stone Mountain, Elberton), granite was imported from Communist China as well because it was of the proper hue. Ten finishers and assemblers were brought from China to fit the pieces of the King statue together. Published reports state that these workers weren’t paid until they returned to China to discourage defections. The $120 million project is still $6 million short of its goal and there is published speculation is that the Chinese government or one of its front companies will fill the gap. A prominent black sculptor in Atlanta was bypassed for the work. The Chinese connection has never been completely explained. Despite the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Jesse Helms, the Chinese communists had nothing to do with Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. King’s face is thoughtful with a hint of a smile (ordered by a federal arts panel to make him appear less confrontational). His arms are folded over a rumpled business suit.  In his hand is a rolled up copy of the “I have a Dream” speech.

President Obama will speak at the Aug. 22 dedication, and salutes will be given to the surviving members of Dr. King’s team at SCLC, other movement veterans and modern exemplars.

The Queen of Soul “Aretha Franklin” will sing Dr. King’s favorite hymn, the one he asked for just before his April 4 assassination, “Precious Lord Take My Hand.”

The memorial’s street address on the Tidal Basin is symbolic: 1964 Independence Avenue, to mark the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the  Movement’s first major legal victory over segregation.

Visitors will enter the monument to Dr. King through a cleft in a granite “Mountain of Despair” to the  large vertical statue of Dr. King, the “Stone of Hope” His words from speeches and sermons will be sandblasted into 450 feet of buff-colored granite walls.

Dr. King’s fraternity at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Alpha Phi Alpha, first proposed a public monument honoring him just months after the 1968 assassination. But the “fierce urgency of now” spoken of in the Dr. King’s Dream Speech went awry over the years.

Agreements on design, compensation, fundraising and curatorship occupied the past 14 years of wrangling.

Complicating things further was the sudden demand for $800,000 by the children of Dr. King for permission to uses their father’s words and likeness. IPM, Intellectual Properties Management had struck again. IPM was the property manager for the person and content rights of Martin Luther King Inc.

IPM, led by Phillip Jones who was Dexter King’s friend at Morehouse, has been notorious for locking away the work of Martin Luther King and charging at the gate. (see my Like The Dew post “The Second Death of Martin King”). But the bounty was paid and the project continued.

It goes without saying that the theme of that Sunday’s celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy is The Dream.

Events of the Dedication week include Partners in the Dream, the Dreamkeepers Symposium, The Dream Celebration Gala, Women who Dared to Dream and the Partners in the Dream Public Expo, a public marketplace of goods and programs.

And there’s the problem.

The Theme of the Dream conceals a Scheme.

For decades, the Scheme has been designed to gloss over the genuine All American populist economic radicalism of Dr. King in favor of the cardboard cutout of an inoffensive super hero. An inert, nonconfrontational dreamer. Now he’s frozen in stone, the way the legatees of Dr. King have themselves been over the decades.

Have we heard the mighty voice of the King Center in these times of national crisis? All those wars? Dexter, Bernice and Martin Luther King III have been largely irrelevant in the systematic attack on every goal of the Civil Rights Movement by ultraconservative forces whose frightful power nationwide is more influential than the whole history of Klan rallies.

The words and images of Dr. King are largely absent. They are rented out to corporations for ads and public relations events.

SCLC is a squabbling nonentity in the building Georgia Power built for them.

When last I looked, there was nothing about the Martin Luther King monument to be dedicated Aug. 28 on either the SCLC nor King Center websites.

Rarely are the radical vision and courageous resistance shown us by Dr. King summoned to join battle with neoracism and plutocracy. Waving of the King Banner of Nonviolent Resistance to Oppression is as hard to find today as a mention by President Obama’s of the poor or poverty.

Perhaps it’s because Dr. King’s words can’t be used without the fee, the royalty, the bill slipped into the palm of the estate. Just sayin’

If you dream, then act and move to realize that dream and never stop, you will advance the authentic mission of Martin King. If however, you dream and stay immobile in dreamland, quietly waiting, hoping the white folks will do right and wishing things will get better, that is what Dr. King specifically and forcefully condemned in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

I’m sorry, but there’s something deeply unsettling about this, this enshrinement yet again of this whole thing about King’s Dream and dreaming and dreamers which hollow out the unfiltered legacy of Martin King, whom Hoover’s FBI once called “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the United States.”

But then you don’t put together a Dream Public Expo to honor dangerous Negroes.

We have stopped remembering or understanding Dr. King beyond the confines of that sweltering August day of dreams in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial. We are told to forget the angry, in-your-face dreamer, and we pretend his far more eloquent and furious denunciations of the America’s economic system that kept workers of whatever color from earning a decent living simply didn’t happen.

Dangerous Negroes don’t get memorials chaired by the head of the General Motors Foundation, cochaired by the Tommy Hillfiger Foundation. You don’t gather vice chairs as illustrious as foundations of Wal Mart, Delta Airlines, McDonalds or General Electric.

And nobody dangerous ever gets a $120 million honorific sitting between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials in D.C. jointly administered by the National Parks Service and Department of Interior.

Something else is going on here.

If the sordid edifice of segregation was a barricade to progress of the people, then unyielding capitalism bent on profiting by destruction of human lives was a mighty wall. Dr. King began to realize this as far back as the late 1950s. He began to write of economic injustice but he put his thoughts aside when he and Ralph Abernathy formed SCLC.

The 1963 Dream Speech said nothing of economic inequality in its passionate appeal for a harmonious society. It called for the nation to be pulled from the quicksands of racial injustice.

Because he he didn’t criticize the economic system, this speech has fared better among opinion makers, guardians of the product and white folks in general than his later, more pointed critiques of war and the inequalities brought about by the culture of greed.

There isn’t any general knowledge of any other King speech (“Mountaintop” April 3 excepted).

Shortly before his assassination, Dr. King told an interviewer that his dream of racial equality between blacks and whites would be impossible if there wasn’t income parity between the races. This quote probably won’t make onto the monument walls.

– to be continued

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Boyd Lewis

Boyd Lewis

New Orleans family. War baby. Family moved a lot. Secondary and college education in Memphis, TN. Just before 1967 graduation, commissioning and tour of leafy, lovely Vietnam, banged up in auto accident. Decided to go into journalism. Tennessee mountain weekly, small Mississippi daily and nearly three decades in Atlanta. Black and alternative newspapers, freelance photojournalist, public radio news and documentary producer, news writer for CNN. Married Deborah James, followed her to Los Angeles for job. Quit the dismal trade and became middle school English teacher in LA barrio school. Quite happy.